On August 6th, 1978, an eighty-year-old Italian bishop died, following a massive heart attack. Known most of his life as Giovanni Battista Montini, he had taken the name Paul VI in 1963, when he was elected Bishop of Rome in succession to the greatly beloved Pope John XXIII, now canonized a saint of the Church. Paul’s fifteen-year pontificate was difficult. He carried through to its conclusion in December 1965 the Second Vatican Council, which had been called by his predecessor. That alone was a great achievement. For the Church, it was a great blessing. But as the famed English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, wrote a century earlier: “There has seldom been a Council without great confusion after it.”
Quoting selectively from the Council texts, some Catholics claimed that the Council had changed nothing, others that it had repudiated the Church’s past and changed everything. Both were wrong. The resulting confusion deeply grieved Pope Paul. He spoke at one point of “the smoke of Satan in the Church.”
Before Easter 1978 Pope Paul’s longtime friend, the Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro, a devout Catholic, was seized by “Red Guard” terrorists who for fifty-five days played a cat-and-mouse game with their prisoner. Publicly as well as privately the Pope moved heaven and earth to save the man he had known and loved since Moro’s student days.
On May 9th Moro’s bullet riddled body was found in the trunk of a parked car in central Rome. Preaching at Moro’s funeral four days later, the anguished Pope quoted Job’s complaint to God, asking how God could permit such evil. Pope Paul’s faith never faltered. But he could have been forgiven for thinking in the closing weeks of his life that a cloud seemed to have shut out the sunshine of God’s love. How fitting that God called his faithful servant home on the feast which reminds us that the cloud is the sign not of God’s absence, but of his presence.
The cloud symbolizing God’s presence appears often in Scripture. God led his people by a cloud following their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. There was a cloud on Mount Sinai when Moses received the ten commandments (Exod. 24:13). A cloud received the risen Lord into heaven at Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1:9). And a cloud descended on Jesus at his Transfiguration.
From the cloud Peter, James, and John hear a voice speaking the same words uttered at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son.” For a brief moment, there on the mountain, the veil between time and eternity, between earth and heaven, was lifted. Jesus’ three friends were permitted to catch a momentary glimpse of the invisible, spiritual world of God.
The concluding words spoken from the cloud – “Listen to him” – express the significance of this mystery for Jesus’ friends: not only for the three present there on the mountain, but for all the friends of Jesus, ourselves included.
We, the friends and followers of Jesus Christ, are the company of those who listen to his words. Jesus does not grant to us, any more than he granted to Peter, James, and John, the continuous vision of his glory. We live not on the mountain-top of great spiritual experiences, but in the valley of life’s ordinary duties. There we do not look for dazzling visions from beyond. Instead we listen for God’s voice.
Perhaps you’re wondering: Does God really speak to us? When? How? God is speaking to us all the time. He speaks in his Holy Word, in the teaching of his Church, through the circumstances of daily life, in the promptings of conscience, and in the needs of those whom we encounter along life’s way. In the world to come it will be different. There we shall see God. In this world, however, we live by faith, not by sight.
That is the way Jesus lived. How bitterly his faith was tested as he passed through his own dark valley we learn from his anguished cry on the cross; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Jesus calls us to follow him on the way of the cross: to endure whatever trials and sufferings life may bring. The way of the cross will lead us, as it led Jesus, through suffering to death. But beyond death for us, as for him, is resurrection to life eternal. Then faith will give way to sight. Then our earthly pilgrimage beneath an often-overcast sky will yield to the uninterrupted vision of God’s glory. We shall have reached our true homeland, the heavenly city, which (as we read in the final book of the Bible) needs neither sun nor moon, “for the glory of God gives it light, and the lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
Now, however, is the time not for seeing, but for hearing. We listen for the Father’s voice and heed his command, as he speaks to us the words first uttered to those three friends of Jesus on the mountain two thousand years ago:
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."