August 6th is probably the most common date of secular significance put to homiletic use. Preachers for that day’s feast of the Transfiguration are apt to compare the light of Christ, which transfigures unto glory, with the light seen in Hiroshima on 6th August 1945, when for the first time came that light which disfigures unto death.

August 6th this year united two other anniversaries of import in recent Catholic history: the death of Blessed Paul VI in 1978, and the publication of Veritatis Splendor by St John Paul II in 1993. Veritatis Splendor marked the half-way point between Humanae Vitae (1968) and today, and so provides a reference point for the ministry of the Roman pontiff over these last 50 years.

By 1978, Blessed Paul VI had long borne the heat of the day; he was weary of being the helmsman of a Church in stormy waters. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul he celebrated the 15th anniversary of his pontificate and he saw failure around him on every side. The Church was wounded and weak, and the great promise of the Second Vatican Council lay in tatters. But the Holy Father could confess with a clear conscience that he had not betrayed the truth.

“This the Church’s faith, the apostolic faith,” Paul preached for his anniversary, six weeks before he died. “The teaching is preserved intact in the Church through the presence within her of the Holy Spirit, and through the special mission entrusted to Peter, for whom Christ prayed … Such is the untiring, watchful and consuming purpose that has carried us forward during these 15 years of our Pontificate. ‘I have kept the faith!’ we can say today, with the humble but firm consciousness of never having betrayed ‘the holy truth’.”

In 1978, it was an open question whether any pope might be able to teach the truth clearly – especially on moral matters – and get a hearing in the Church, let alone the world. That the pope could be a lonely, beleaguered, heroic voice had been demonstrated by Paul VI, but was that the best that could be achieved? Perhaps so, and the Holy Father would have to pay a heavy price for it.

“The commitment to teaching in the service and defense of truth, which we have offered at the cost of much suffering, includes we believe, as an indispensable part, the defence of human life,” Paul said in that final homily. “The defence of human life must begin at the very source of human existence … We did no more than accept this charge when, ten years ago, we published the encyclical Humanae Vitae … We have made these statements, motivated only by our supreme responsibilities as universal teacher and pastor, and for the good of humanity.”

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