THE CAR FLASHED past in an instant. We all kept cheering, of course, all 400 or so of us, waving the gold-and-white flags the nuns at school had given us. It was October 1965, after all, and to a third-grader like myself it didn't matter that the weather was far too cold for early fall, and that the heavy drizzle had all but soaked through the neat white shirt and grey pants of my parochial-school uniform. Nothing much mattered except that every student of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs School was dutifully lined along Queens Boulevard in New York to cheer Pope Paul VI on his triumphal tour of the city, and that in that brief instant before the bullet-proof Lincoln whizzed him past us to Manhattan, he had waved to us. The moment captured everyone--the beaming nuns, the camera-toting parents, the stern parish priests allowing themselves to smile just once, and even the usually rowdy crew of sniffling little kids that we were. We cheered as we never had before, or probably since.
So much has changed in those 13 years that it is tempting to forget the exultation that characterized the early part of Paul's reign. Just two years before, Giovanni Cardinal Montini had taken upon his head the crown of St. Peter; with it came the doubts of a struggling Church and the frightening burden of succeeding a man the world had come to think of as a saint. At first it did not seem the scholarly Archbishop of Milan would be equal to the challenge laid down by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council; yet when the roaring crowds greeted Paul in New York in 1965, they hailed a man who had let the "fresh air" into the Church with a wondrous combination of skill and piety. The man was called a peacemaker, a reformer, a voice of sanity crying, with hope, in the wilderness of a world grown unaccustomed to such virtues. In 1965 he came to New York, to speak at the United Nations, and it was not only the schoolchildren who cheered. Five hundred million Roman Catholics hung intently on the words from the man they felt quite comfortable calling "His Holiness."
So much has changed.
Before he died Sunday afternoon, Paul had watched the joy and hope of his early reign dissolve amid the rapidly growing crises of a new Church. Remembering his adamant stand against abortion and birth control, his refusal to modify the centuries-old requirement of priestly celibacy, and his opposition to the ordination of women priests, Church liberals had for years labelled him a reactionary, an impediment to the progress of faith. Upon him fell the onus of "losing" the millions of Catholics who drifted away from the Church in the late '60s; alarmed clerics called for his abdication, and a ghoulish speculation over the state of his health, and the betting line on his successors, dominated much of the Catholic press. Let us pray for a better politician, they said.
BUT TODAY, just perhaps, the prayers should go up for another man of faith to take Paul's place. For it is too easy to forget, amidst the fascinating maze of ecclesiastical politics, that the Pope must lead a spiritual community, not a gathering of scarlet-vestured Congressmen. And it is too easy to forget that Paul struggled for 15 years to hold together just such a community of faith, regardless of the cries of the extreme left or right; that he oversaw the most thorough reform the Church had seen in 2000 years; that he encouraged an unprecedented spirit of ecumenism and began the move toward unity with other branches of the Christian faith; and that he steadfastly refused to give in to the efforts of rightists such as Archbishop Lefebvre to erode the reforms he began. Perhaps historians will manage to forget all this, and still judge Paul a conservative, a traditionalist unwilling to grasp the changing currents in the world of faith. More likely, however, they will see him as a cautious man, a man dedicated to change but unwilling, or unable, to let the great reforms he fostered grow out of control, to tear apart an already deeply divided Church.
But what history finally says is not all that relevant. Pope Paul VI has done his work: he began the changes that were necessary, yet kept the great body of the Church intact. Perhaps his successor will be a more innovative politician, better equipped to keep the massive institution that is the Roman Catholic Church functioning smoothly. But he must never forget what Paul did: to what the crowds of cheering children, eagerly waving their flags in the October rain, and to do what he could to keep that childlike innocence in the millions of souls in his flock.