The Gospel of Francis

Pope Francis's decision to canonize both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II – the rival stars of Vatican II – reflects his weariness of polarization and preference for teaching by example. But will his big-tent strategy be enough to bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold?

GLENDALE, CALIFORNIA – Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are the odd couple of modern Roman Catholicism. The avuncular John XXIII, who wanted to loosen up a hidebound Church, and the combative John Paul II, who struggled to rein in what he viewed as the excesses of the Second Vatican Council that John XXIII had convened, appear to be ideological opposites. Yet Pope Francis will canonize the pair this month – a surprising move that may offer a glimpse into his goals for the Church.

The most obvious implication is that Francis is weary of polarization, and hopes that the dual canonization will help to propel a shift toward a “big tent” Catholicism that appeals to a broader range of people. Francis is certainly in a strong position to initiate such a shift; his political capital is extraordinarily high, surpassing even that of US President Barack Obama in his early days in office. People seem to appreciate his preference for teaching by example and dramatic gesture – exemplified by his canonization of the rival stars of Vatican II – rather than by encyclical.

Will this strategy be enough to bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold, or to bridge the gap between the largely conservative generation of “John Paul II priests” and younger, more liberal Catholics? Will the recalcitrant elements in the ecclesiastical establishment be amenable to Francis’s changes?

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