Friday, April 25, 2014

Sainthood Will Seal Two Pope's Places in History

On April 27, the Christian world will change. The largest Christian denomination on earth, the Catholic Church, will commit itself irrevocably to the legacy of two men who helped to reform it — Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II — by proclaiming them saints.

John XXIII was the man who stunned his advisers by summoning the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of bishops from around the world with the mission of re-proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, stripped of historical accretions that tied the church to the dead world of 19th-century monarchies out of fear of revolutions.

At the heart of that council was the Church’s embrace of religious liberty for all believers of every faith — a life-and-death issue to the hundreds of millions of Christians then imprisoned by communism.

One of the architects of that council was a bishop who lived in the captive nation of Poland, Karol Wotyjla. He would go on, of course, to serve as Pope John Paul II and play a key role in dismantling the Soviet empire and bringing religious freedom to half a continent.

Now their roles as prophetic preachers of the Gospel will be sealed in the eyes of history by their successor, Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has been pope just over one year, and one interesting way to look at each of these men is to observe the commentaries on the first year of each pontificate and observe how remarkably similar the reactions are: They were all unlikely men who came to a papal conclave planning to vote for another man, thinking they would soon return to their respective dioceses; two of the three from outside Italy and each, in his own way, winning the hearts of the people immediately by a sense that he would be his own person, personable, accessible, and close to the people.

Will Francis change the church in as profound a way as the men whom he recognizes this week? Only time will tell, but it seems to me unlikely. There are few remaining "inessential" issues where the church really does need to catch up with the times. Maybe a few more bishops will sell their palaces and go live among the people. No doubt the views of the vast and growing church in the developing world will find more of a voice in papal statements on economics and politics, counterbalancing the perspectives of older but shrinking churches in places like Germany and Italy.

But on the core issues that exercise the secular media, the church’s insistence on faithfulness to human dignity, marital fidelity, and the sanctity of life, nothing will change, because it cannot.

No pope has the authority to revoke or revise the moral law that is "written on the human heart." His role is simply to proclaim it. And in a world that desperately wishes not to listen, that’s a hard enough job.

All Christians should wish Pope Francis well, as a voice that speaks out against the fallenness of our hearts and the shallowness of our culture, pointing our eyes ever backward to the words and deeds of an itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

This article originally appeared on

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