Pope Paul VI is the second papal saint Cardinal Justin Rigali has served
By Bill Brewer
Cardinal Justin Rigali had yet another front seat to history on Oct. 14 when Pope Francis canonized St. Paul VI and five others who led exemplary lives in serving the Catholic Church. For Cardinal Rigali, the historic moment was especially poignant since he worked closely with Pope St. Paul VI for the last eight and a half years of the Holy Father’s life beginning in 1970.
Cardinal Rigali is never really far from the Church’s newest saint. Cherished photos of a young Father Rigali at the side of Paul VI during papal audiences and addresses keep him company in his office at the Chancery in Knoxville. A large, framed photo of the pontiff that has become a popular image hangs just above the cardinal’s desk. A closer look reveals the cardinal dutifully accompanying the man revered for his leadership during and after the Second Vatican Council and other Church reforms.
In addition, St. Paul VI has been called the first “modern” pope whose encyclical Humanae Vitae still is widely embraced and whose efforts to bring the Gospel to the world are considered groundbreaking.
Cardinal Rigali describes the modernist pontiff as the first to travel by plane to reach far parts of the world. While air travel was established when Paul VI became pope on June 21, 1963, he was the first pontiff to use this modern form of world travel.
After serving as the pope’s English translator and director of the English-language department of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Cardinal Rigali said he and others recognized the pontiff’s unique gifts early on.
“Pope Paul VI died in 1978 and many of us were convinced that he was truly a saintly pope and that he would hopefully someday be declared a saint of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Rigali said following= the canonization. “Paul VI was an extraordinary human being, so kind.”
He pointed out that 40 years after the pope’s death, their hopes were realized.
“I was with him for eight and a half years. Sometimes I was with him every day of the week; sometimes I was with him more than once a day. I just had the opportunity to be impressed by what he stood for, how he acted, how he lived, how he spoke, what he said. He was the pastor of the Church, the faithful pastor who was leading all of us in those very important years after the Second Vatican Council,” the cardinal said.
He pointed out that while Pope St. John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council and presided over the council’s first session before dying on June 3, 1963, Pope Paul VI was called on to lead the council’s next three sessions in 1963, 1964, and 1965.
“It was Paul VI who came in and had to shepherd the Church through this enormous undertaking, and he did it so faithfully and so well. He always called our attention to the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ and the importance of us all being faithful to Christ,” Cardinal Rigali recalled.
When Cardinal Rigali joined the Secretariat of State in 1970, he soon learned that one of the pontiff’s unique gifts was teaching the nations about Christ. That emphasis on education took the pope and his translator around the world to such locales as Iran; Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan; the Philippines, Australia, Samoa, American Samoa, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka when it was Ceylon.
He grew close to Pope Paul while serving as translator and was near the pontiff at the Manila airport in November 1970 when an assassin dressed as a priest made an attempt on the pope’s life. The assassin was accosted at the moment he tried to plunge a dagger into the pope’s chest, but the pontiff still sustained a minor knife wound.
“Luckily, he (the assassin) was impeded at the very last second. The night it happened I was with him translating for him,” the cardinal said.
The pontiff offered another glimpse into his saintly virtue by immediately brushing off the incident to instead focus on his trip to the Philippines.
Cardinal Rigali explained that during the last eight and a half years of Pope Paul VI’s life he learned that the pontiff preferred to speak Italian during audiences although he spoke English.
Among those in the private audiences were heads of state like President Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford, and even a first mother.
“The very last audience I was with him — he died on Aug. 6, 1978 — and the last time I was with him was at the end of July when he gave an audience to the mother of the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. That is the last time I translated for Paul VI,” the cardinal said.
Many of those memories were with Cardinal Rigali as he watched Pope Francis elevate the beloved Paul VI to sainthood. The cardinal was not going to miss the chance to be part of another Pope Paul VI historic moment.
And thinking of the pontiff’s many contributions to Church history, Cardinal Rigali couldn’t help but fondly compare St. Paul VI to his successor, Pope St. John Paul II, who continued Paul’s mission to bring the Gospel to the world and who Cardinal Rigali also dutifully served for years.
“Paul VI was the great teacher during and after the Second Vatican Council. His papacy lasted more than 15 years. When you read what Pope Paul VI said, you see what depth there is, what beauty there is,” Cardinal Rigali concluded.