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
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
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
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.