“Am I Hamlet or Don Quixote?” Pope Paul VI once asked that question about himself, and whatever his answer might have been, most people would say he was more than a little of both. 

His hesitation in making difficult choices, arising from acute sensitivity, reflected the indecisiveness of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark. At the same time, his dedication to pursuing lofty but hard to reach goals in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles shared more than a little in common with Cervantes’s superannuated knight errant.

Now Paul’s October 14 canonization in Rome, alongside that of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, directs fresh attention to this long-suffering pope for whom, it sometimes seemed, nothing was ever entirely simple.

Almost from the start of his pontificate, he seems to have had a sense of foreboding about what lay ahead. “The post is unique,” he wrote of the papacy. “I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complex and awesome….My duty is to plan, decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others….And so suffer alone.”

He is best remembered today for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control. In typical fashion, Paul VI agonized over this decision for years—more than enough time, as events soon showed, for dissent from the Church’s teaching to take shape and grow. In the short term at least, the dissent that greeted Humanae Vitae was a disaster from which the Church has yet to recover.

Besides the birth control encyclical, Paul VI also produced two other remarkable documents. One of these is Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples), which firmly aligned the Church with the concerns of developing nations and provided an important new chapter in Catholic social doctrine. The other is Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World) which since its publication in 1975—three years before Paul’s death—has been a Magna Carta for Catholic evangelization.

Evangelii Nuntiandi is in part a highly sophisticated reflection on the interlocking challenges—atheism on the one hand, religious indifference on the other—that face evangelization in today’s secularized world and make evangelization perhaps more needed now than ever before. Those who propose to evangelize, he wrote, must work to find “the proper means for presenting, or representing… God’s revelation and faith in Jesus Christ” to their alienated contemporaries.

But there is, he wrote, a serious obstacle—“one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today”—arising from the divisions existing, as no one knew better than he, not only among separated Christians but even within the Church. Calling unity “the test of the credibility” of evangelizers, he wrote:

“If the gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations, or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter’s differing views on Christ and the Church and even because of their different concepts of society and human institutions, how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?

“As evangelizers, we must offer Christ’s faithful not the image of people divided and separated by unedifying quarrels, but the image of people who are mature in faith and capable of finding a meeting-point beyond the real tensions, thanks to a shared, sincere and disinterested search for truth.”

Reading this now, it’s painful to reflect on how far many Catholics remain from one another today. Perhaps our first prayer to Saint Paul VI should be for the restoration of unity as the first, indispensable condition of evangelization.

Russell Shaw lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is the author of more than 20 books and numerous articles and commentaries. He was information director of the NCCB/USCC (1967-1987) and the Knights of Columbus (1987-1997).

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