It is sad that the great feast of Christ’s Transfiguration is tucked, almost unobtrusively, into the middle of the week. In some of the Eastern Christian traditions the feast is preceded by a vigil and followed by an octave. Nonetheless the Transfiguration remains one of the richest feasts of the liturgical year, worthy of prolonged pondering.
It might be called “the feast of integral humanism,” which celebrates not only Christ’s true identity as beloved Son of the Father, but the dignity and destiny of all who are being transformed in Christ’s likeness.
The great Paul VI brought the notion of integral humanism into the center of his papal magisterium, especially in his encyclical “Populorum Progressio” that calls for human development guided by and worthy of humanity’s God-given vocation. And Benedict XVI incorporated this theme into his recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” paying warm homage to Paul VI.
I think it fair to say that the image of the transfigured Christ was at the heart of Pope Paul’s spirituality, and I think it a singular act of divine Providence that Paul died on the day of the feast: August 6, 1978.
In his insightful and poignant biography of Paul VI, Peter Hebblethwaite recounts the last hours of the Pontiff. At 6:00 p.m. his secretary begins celebrating the Mass of the feast in the small chapel at Castelgandolfo with Paul lying on his death bed in the adjacent room.
Paul receives Communion under both kinds, his viaticum for the journey. As Mass ends Paul has a massive heart attack. It is as though he had exploded from within.
For another three hours Paul lingers on … murmuring repeatedly, faintly, as though for himself alone, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” By 9:30 p.m. even this ceases.
With everyone kneeling by his bedside, Cardinal Villot begins the prayers for the dying. Paul opens his eyes briefly, recognizes Villot, murmurs “grazie” and sketches a limp blessing before subsiding into a deep sleep, his last. There is no agony. At 9:41 the doctor says, “The Pope is dead.” Then the alarm clock [bought in Poland so many years before] went off.