Sunday, July 29, 2018

Pope Paul VI’s ‘John 6 Moment’

Blessed Paul VI

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 29, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Kings 4: 42-44; Psalm 145: 10-18; Ephesians 4: 1-6; John 6: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2018]

He went from almost becoming a king, to almost being completely abandoned.  I’m talking here about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior—specifically the Jesus we read about in the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John.  Today we heard the opening lines of that chapter, which tell the famous story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  We will hear excerpts from the rest of John 6 in our gospel readings for the next 4 Sundays.  (It’s a really long chapter!)  In these opening lines that we heard a few moments ago, we were told that Jesus fed 5,000 people near the Sea of Galilee.  He fed them with bodily food.  He worked an incredible miracle, and gave them all a meal of fish and bread.

And they liked it so much that they wanted to make him their king (probably so that they could get a few more free meals!).  Jesus, of course, didn’t come down from heaven to be an earthly ruler of an earthly kingdom, so before they could crown him he slipped away and hid himself on a nearby mountain.

But Jesus saw this same crowd again the following day; this time on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee.  And there he began to speak to them about another food that he intended to give them in the very near future: a spiritual food that would bring them eternal life, namely, the Holy Eucharist. 

Which caused most of the men and women in the crowd to (for lack of a better expression) “freak out”—especially when Jesus began to say things like, “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”; and “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world”; and “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you do not have life within you”; and, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”

The truth about the Holy Eucharist was too much for most of these people to handle, and so the majority of them walked away after Jesus gave this teaching—even some who had been following our Lord for quite a while.  The text says, “As a result of this [teaching], many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Thankfully, the twelve Apostles did remain faithful to our Lord, even though at the time they didn’t fully understand the message Jesus had given.  When Jesus asked the Twelve if they were going to leave too, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

But most of the other followers of our Lord did not continue in their discipleship.  They “threw in the towel” as his followers—perhaps forever (although we can hope and pray that at least some of them eventually returned).

Which brings us to Pope Paul VI.  Blessed Paul VI, who will be canonized a saint later this year, understood what Jesus went through in John, chapter 6, in a way that most of us (thankfully) never will.  Pope Paul had what I would call his “John 6 moment” fifty years ago this past week, when he published an encyclical entitled “Humanae vitae” (which in Latin means, “Of Human Life”).  In that document, which is mostly about the beauty and dignity of marriage, the Holy Father did what many people were convinced he would not dare to do in the midst of the sexual revolution: he reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching condemning the use of artificial contraception—even within marriage.  Now notice that I call it “the traditional Christian teaching” as opposed to “the traditional Catholic teaching.”  I do that because, prior to 1930, most (if not all) mainline Protestants believed the very same thing that Catholics believed: that contraception is immoral.

Many Protestants (and many Catholics!) today are not aware of that fact—but it’s true.  This was a universal Christian belief.

Then at their Lambeth Conference of 1930, the bishops of the Anglican Church caved in to social pressure.  They decided that contraception could be morally acceptable in some limited circumstances.  Well, shortly thereafter “some circumstances” turned into “all circumstances”—and every other mainline Protestant church followed suit.

Which is where we’re at today.  What ALL Christians believed about contraception for over 19 centuries, only the Catholic Church still believes and still teaches today—thanks, in large part, to the courage of Paul VI.

But he suffered for it—from July 25, 1968 (the day he published Humanae vitae) until August 6, 1978 (the day he died).  Like Jesus in John 6, Pope Paul had to deal with opposition from people in his own flock—especially the intellectuals, who wasted no time in stirring up an internal rebellion in the Church—a rebellion that’s had a negative effect on Catholic life in the United States for the last 5 decades.  Within a week of the encyclical’s publication, more than 600 theology professors from around the country signed a “statement of dissent” objecting to what the Pope said in the document.  And it’s gone on from there, such that now only 20% of Catholics accept the traditional Christian teaching.

Which is one of the reasons why the divorce rate among Catholics right now is pretty much the same as the divorce rate in the rest of society.  Catholic couples who practice Natural Family Planning, on the other hand—who do follow Church teaching—have an almost non-existent divorce rate.

A coincidence?

Not according to Blessed Paul VI.  The Holy Father warned the Church and the world that when you separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marital act through artificial contraception, certain consequences—though unintended—naturally follow.  He accurately predicted in Humanae vitae that an acceptance of birth control would lead to an increase in sexual promiscuity and marital infidelity; that men would begin to treat women more and more as objects to be used for their own selfish pleasure; and that people would be pressured and even forced at times by civil governments to limit the size of their families.

Pope Paul VI was laughed at and ridiculed when he said these things in 1968, as I’m sure Jesus was laughed at and ridiculed when he gave that teaching on the Eucharist 2,000 years ago.  But the Holy Father was right!  He was right on every count.

What was supposed to empower women and strengthen marriages has had the exact opposite effect in the last fifty years.  The widespread use of contraception (even by practicing Catholics) has resulted in the further objectification of women, an increase in adultery, more broken marriages and families, a greater number of sexually-transmitted diseases (some of which are life-threatening), and a divorce rate that is sky high.

So, contrary to what you’ll normally hear (especially in the secular media), soon-to-be St. Paul VI was a man ahead of his time.  He was a humble, courageous and steadfast prophet of God, who spoke the truth about married love and the transmission of life to a world that desperately needed to hear it.

And still does.