Hidden secrets: Paul VI’s unpublished documents

Pope Paul VI wrote a letter of resignation two years after being elected to head the Catholic Church

“The Barque of Paul” by Father Leonardo Sapienza, Regent of the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, a 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.

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his resignation in case he was seriously impeded by illness or other circumstances, according to the book containing unpublished works by the pope.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

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 resignation.

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.”

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 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.

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.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.”

The book also has in it the transcription of a conversation that took place on Sept. 1, 1976, 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 Council.

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