VATICAN CITY — Pope Paul VI, who did much to modernize the Roman Catholic Church but pronounced a ban on artificial contraception which was widely defied by the faithful, has moved a step closer to sainthood with Pope Francis’ official confirmation of a miracle.
The date for the beatification was set for Oct. 19, the Vatican said today, a day after Francis formally certified the miracle said to involve a risky birth in California. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood.
During his pontificate from 1963 to 1978, Paul made landmark progress in improving Catholics’ relationship with other Christians.
But he disappointed many Catholics who were hoping for liberalization of church teaching on sexuality. After much consultation and, reportedly, personal anguish, Paul VI enshrined the church’s teaching against artificial contraception in the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” ("of human life").
The issue is among many expected to get scrutiny in a special meeting of bishops called at the Vatican in October to discuss family life. The beatification ceremony would come at the end of the gathering.
One miracle is required for beatification, and traditionally a second for canonization. The Vatican, as is its custom, didn’t give details about the miracle which must be certified by doctors as having no medical explanation.
Italian media have reported that the miracle was that of a boy born healthy in California despite the diagnoses in 2001 of the rupture of the fetal bladder and absence of amniotic liquid. The mother reportedly refused an abortion and prayed for Paul VI’s intercession at the urging of a nun. The baby was born a month prematurely and is now a healthy adolescent, the news reports said.
Like John Paul II, Paul VI was hard to peg as progressive or conservative. Both were conservative on sexual issues, but enthusiastically embraced the thrust toward ecumenism set in motion by the Second Vatican Council.
Vatican II opened the way for Mass to be said in local languages instead of in Latin. Its reforms also inspired many nuns, especially in the United States, shed their long robes in favor of knee-length skirts and abandoned the head-coverings that were their orders’ dress code for centuries.
Paul, who like John Paul took up traveling to distant lands, ended nearly a millennium of estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox Christians when he journeyed to Jerusalem in 1964 and embraced Patriarch Athengoras, then the Orthodox leader.
Paying tribute to that bold gesture, Francis later this month will go to Jerusalem and pray together with the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I.
Paul VI disposed of many of the privileged trappings of the papacy, anticipating Francis’ disdain for stuffiness and fanciness at the Vatican. Paul got rid of scores of Italian nobles from the papal “court” who had privileges dating back centuries.
He still allowed use of the papal throne, and looked frail and uncomfortable as he arrived for the funeral of assassinated Italian politician Aldo Moro in Rome in 1978 in the chair perched on the shoulders of 12 men. He was under fire from the Moro family who thought he didn’t do enough to save the leader despite having made a public plea “on my knees” for Moro’s release by Red Brigades kidnappers.