* * *
1. The Johannine passage we heard a short while ago, has again proposed to us a thought-provoking evangelical scene. The Son of God entrusts to Peter his flock, his Church, against which, as he had already assured, the gates of hell would not prevail (see Matthew 16:17-18). Jesus precedes this charge with a request of love: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" (John 21:15). A disquieting question that, repeated three times, recalls the triple denial of the apostle. But the latter, despite the bitter experience, protests humbly: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!" (John 21:17).
Love is the secret of Peter's mission! And love is also the secret of those who are called to imitate the Good Shepherd in guiding the People of God. "'Officium amoris pascere dominicum gregem' ... To watch over the flock of the Lord is a charge of love," Paul VI loved to say, making his own a noted expression of St. Augustine.
2. "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" How many times my venerated predecessor, the servant of God Paul VI whom we remember today, must have heard these words resound in his spirit. Forty years have passed since his election to the Chair of Peter, on June 21, 1963, and 25 years since his death, on Aug. 6, 1978. From his youth he had worked in the direct service of the Apostolic See, next to Pius XI. He was for a long period one of the most faithful and prized collaborators of Pius XII. He was the immediate Successor of Blessed John XXIII, whom I had the joy of raising to the glory of the altar almost three years ago. His ministry of universal Pastor of the Church lasted 15 years and was marked above all by the Second Vatican Council and a great opening to the needs of the modern age.
I also had the grace to take part in the conciliar sessions and to live in the post-conciliar period. I was able to appreciate personally the commitment that Paul VI did not cease to show for the necessary "aggiornamento" of the Church to the exigencies of the new evangelization. In succeeding him in the Chair of Peter, my concern has been to continue the pastoral action begun by him, being inspired by him as by a father and a teacher.
3. A strong and meek apostle, Paul VI loved the Church and worked for its unity and intensification of the missionary action. In this perspective, the innovative initiative of apostolic trips is fully understood, which today is an integral part of the ministry of the Successor of Peter.
He wanted the ecclesial community to open itself to the world without, however, giving way to the spirit of the world. With prudent wisdom, he knew how to resist the temptation to "adapt" himself to the modern mentality, facing with evangelical fortitude difficulties and lack of understanding and, in some cases, even hostility. Even in the most difficult moments, he did not allow the People of God to lack his illuminating word. At the end of his days, the whole world seemed to rediscover his greatness and drew near to him in an emotional embrace.
4. His magisterium was rich and to a large extent oriented to educate believers in the spirit of the Church. Among his many contributions, I limit myself to recall, in addition to the encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam" at the start of his pontificate, the moving profession of faith, known as the "Creed of the People of God," pronounced with vigor in St. Peter's Square on June 30, 1968. Nor is it possible not to mention the courageous pronouncements in defense of human life with the encyclical "Humanae Vitae," and in favor of developing nations with the encyclical "Populorum Progressio," to construct a more just and solidaristic society.
Noteworthy, too, are the personal reflections he engaged in during spiritual retreats, when he would "withdraw" into himself, as in the "cell of the heart." He meditated often on the post that God had called him to in the service of the "ever beloved" Church, in the spirit of Peter's vocation. "In this meditation," he noted during one of these retreats, "no one should be more committed than me. ... To understand it, to live it! Lord, what a reality, what a mystery! It is an adventure in which everything depends on Christ" (Retreat, Aug. 5-13, 1963, "Meditazioni Inedite" [Unpublished Meditations], Studium Publishers).
5. Dear Brothers and Sisters, let us thank God for the gift of this Pontiff, firm and wise guide of the Church. In the homily of June 29, 1978, just about a month before the end of his laborious earthly existence, Paul VI confided: "Before the dangers that we have delineated ... we feel driven to address Christ, as the only salvation, and to cry out to him: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life' (John 6:68). He alone is the truth, he alone is our strength, he alone is our salvation. Comforted by him, we will continue our way together" ("Insegnamenti" [Teachings], XVI, 1978, p. 524).
In the light of the eternal goal, we understand better how urgent it is to love Christ and to serve his Church with joy. May Mary obtain this grace for us, whom Paul VI with filial love wished to proclaim Mother of the Church. And may it be she, precisely, Our Lady, who receives into her arms that devoted son of hers in the eternal blessedness reserved for the faithful servants of the Gospel.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Pope Paul VI was elected to the See of Peter 40 years ago this month. Pope Paul brought the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion and carried forward its program of ecclesial renewal and missionary dialogue with the modern world. In turbulent times he led the Church with wisdom and love, prophetically defending the truth of the Gospel, the dignity of human life, and the authentic progress of peoples. His example invites us to deepen our love of Christ and our fidelity to the Church.
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today's audience, especially those from England, Norway and the United States. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.