Hidden secrets: Paul VI’s unpublished documents

The pope had sought to 'renounce' his office as bishop of Rome as well as
head of the Catholic Church in case of infirmity
La Croix International staff
Vatican City
May 17, 2018

Pope Paul VI had written a letter for his resignation in case he was
seriously impeded by illness or other circumstances, according to a book
containing unpublished works by the pope.

This top-secret letter dated 2 May 1965 — just two years after his election
and 13 years before his death — was published May 15 in the Vatican
newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

It is part of the Italian book "The Barque of Paul" by Father Leonardo
Sapienza, Regent of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household.

The book, which will soon be in bookstores, is a treasure trove of
documents, letters and messages of Pope Paul VI, unknown to the public
until today.

Paul VI had sought to “renounce” his office “as bishop of Rome as well as
head of the same holy Catholic Church... in case of infirmity, which is
believed to be incurable or is of long duration and which impedes us from
sufficiently exercising the functions of our apostolic ministry; or in the
case of another serious and prolonged impediment, the letter said.

The text of the main letter is marked "confidential" and addressed to the
Dean of the College of Cardinals on letterhead with the papal coat of arms
and an instruction that he may disclose it to other cardinals in declaring
the pontiff incapacitated and to “accept and render effective” the

Paul VI said he was writing "aware of our responsibility before God and
with a heart full of reverence and of charity, which unite us to the holy
Catholic Church, and not unmindful of our evangelical mission to the world."

Paul also informed the then Secretary of State Cardinal Amleto Cicognani
about the letter and gave him permission to read it.

The book includes Pope Francis’ comments on Paul VI. "We must thank God,
who alone guides and saves the church, for having allowed Paul VI to
continue until the last day of his life to be father, pastor, master,
brother and friend," he said.

Commenting on the letter, Pope Francis said, it “seems to me a humble and
prophetic witness of love for Christ and his church and a further proof of
holiness of this great pope.”

He added that what was important to Paul VI “were the needs of the church
and the world. And a pope impeded by serious illness could not exercise the
apostolic ministry with sufficient effectiveness."

It is well known that several popes of the last century had thought of
resignation — such as Pius XII, whom Hitler had been planning to kidnap.

Church law states that a pope can resign, but stipulates that the
resignation must be "made freely and properly manifested"

It had long been rumored that Pope John Paul II, who had survived an
assassination attempt after being shot and wounded, and later afflicted by
Parkinson's disease, had also written such a resignation letter.

In 2010, Msgr. Slawomir Oder, coordinator of the pope's sainthood cause,
released a book publishing for the first time letters Pope John Paul wrote
offering the College of Cardinals his resignation in case of an incurable
disease or other conditions that would prevent him from fulfilling his

“But even a month before St. John Paul's death in April 2005, canon law
experts in Rome and elsewhere were saying the problem with such a letter is
that someone else would have to decide when to pull it out of the drawer
and apply it,” the Catholic News Service reported.

However, his successor Benedict XVI became the first to resign since
Gregory XII’s resignation in 1415.

Announcing his resignation to the gathering of cardinals in 2013, Benedict
said: "Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I
declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of St.
Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way,
that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the see of Rome, the see of
St. Peter, will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new supreme pontiff
will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."

The book also has in it the transcription of a conversation between Pope
Paul VI who ratified the Second Vatican Council and proclaimed the
liturgical reform, and the rebel French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who
formerly headed Dakar archdiocese in Senegal and established the Society of
St. Pius X in 1968 to counter changes instituted by the Second Vatican

Lefebvre opposed the council's acceptance of religious liberty, its
openness to ecumenism and its approval of liturgical reforms such as
celebration of Mass in local languages. Priests of his society celebrate
Mass only in Latin, as before the council.

The conversation between Paul VI and Lefebvre took place Sept. 1, 1976 in
Castel Gandolfo in the presence of the pope’s private secretary Don
Pasquale Macchi and lasted for a little over half an hour.  The transcripts
show how Paul VI repeatedly tried to enter into a dialogue with Lefebvre.

The book comes at a time when Pope VI is to be canonized.

Pope Francis in March approved the decree of miracle for Blessed Paul VI.
May 19 is the day set for the final approval for the canonization of
Blessed Paul VI.

He was pope from 1963 to 1978, during a period including most of the Second
Vatican Council (1962–65). He was beatified by Pope Francis in 2014.

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