Was John Paul Great?

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

Immediately after his death there were great public calls for his canonisation. His writings are described as "more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope".[1] He is credited with re-energising the Church's missionary work. He took a strong line on bishops, emphasising their role as pastors rather than that of princes of the Church. He was much admired beyond the confines of traditional Catholicism: a leading Protestant described him as a good Pope.[2]

But was he really "great"? One commentator describes him as "hostile to learning and crudely limited as a theologian".[3] There were wars and difficulties during his reign - his huge popularity, especially in Rome, at his death cannot mask the fact that during his reign and despite his best efforts, many people did suffer.

Yes, it's worth analysing: was St Gregory really "the great"? And what about Pope Leo, also given that title? He is credited with meeting Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome and urging him to spare the city - but in the end the Huns did invade and although Leo's intervention prevented the worst of their activities, there was a considerable amount of wrecking.

So what are we to make of the spontaneous and now quite widespread usage of "the great" with reference to Blessed John Paul? His successor, Pope Benedict, spoke of him as "the great John Paul". Was he really so great? We can certainly point to many failures during John Paul's reign -the Church in Europe steadily lost ground, so much so that he himself referred to a "silent apostasy", one that all too evidently caused him much anguish. Churches, monasteries and convents closed. Nations and territories once famed for their Catholicism became secularist or, more accurately, consumerist in their beliefs and lifestyles. By the time he died, the very future of Europe seemed at risk, with a plummeting birth rate and widespread abandonment of ideas, traditions, and achievements which were theessence of a Christian heritage. Any analysis of his reign must take full recognition of that.

Best, perhaps, to start at the beginning. When John Paul II assumed the Papacy in 1978, the Church was in a state of confusion following the Second Vatican Council. Huge numbers of priests had renounced their calling, as had many nuns and monks. It was standard to be able to observe absurd and tasteless silliness in ordinary parish liturgies, with girls in leotards dancing up the aisle or children brought forward to perform songs or poetry in place of the Church's prayers. In many Catholic schools, colleges and universities it was rare to find enthusiastic and dedicated affirmation of orthodox Catholic teachings. There was a sense of disintegration in the air of the Church - as if things were somehow falling apart, even though it was still possible to rally large numbers to St Peter'sSquare to observe the white smoke coming out of the chimney and to cheer the new Pope as he arrived on the balcony.

And what an extraordinary arrival it was. Popes traditionally merely gave a blessing after the formal announcement ("Habemus Papam!") had been made. But on 22 October 1978 the new Pope - "from a far country" as he described himself - spoke directly to the crowd, saying that he hoped he made himself understood "in your - in our - Italian language" adding, to huge cheer, "if I make a mistake, correct me!"

It was the start of an extraordinary papacy. There has never been one like it: he visited 129 nations, travelling the equivalent of three times to the moon and back; he was seen personally by more people than any previous individual in history; he addressed the biggest crowd ever gathered in one place (at Manila, in the Philippines - an estimated five million). He brought together representatives of the world's major religions to make a stand for peace. He canonised and beatified more saints and blesseds than all his predecessors put together. He wrote 14 encyclicals, made 748 visits to parishes in Rome and adjacent territories of which he was Bishop, created nine specially dedicated Years (for the Eucharist, for Mary, etc) and led the Church in a three-year preparation for, and eventualcelebration of, a Great Jubilee in the year 2000.

He survived an assassination attempt - later forgiving his would-be murderer and visiting him in prison - and a stabbing by a deranged priest from a schismatic group.[4] And he suffered a number of serious illnesses ranging from a stomach tumour to the Parkinson's disease which marked his final years - but which did not prevent him from continuing his massive programme of overseas trips, rallies, meetings, conferences, ad limina visits with Bishops, and more.
John Paul can be worthily credited with a major - if not the major - role in the collapse of Communism, and with bringing freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He bridged a centuries-long gulf between Christians and Jews, forging a new friendship between the two with massive implications for the future. He formed a deep bond with the rapidly growing Church in Africa. He took Christian unity to a new level of seriousness and was well-regarded - even loved - by men and women from Christian communities which had long regarded the Pope as an evil figure. He worked to achieve unity with the Orthodox. He brought together the world's young Catholics in vast gatherings for prayer, instruction, Mass, penance and fellowship in World Youth Days, establishing atradition that looks set to last for generations.

His encyclical Veritatis Splendor revitalised the teaching of moral theology even while it brought him condemnation from those who considered its message too challenging. His teaching on human relationships - later to be known as the "theology of the body" - gave a new direction and depth to the Church's teaching on marriage and sexual communion. His defence of human life in Evangelium Vitae rallied the Church to the cause of defending the vulnerable and opposing the killing of unborn children and the frail and weak. His call to artists to show the world the glory of beauty and goodness, his appeal to women to discover their own unique vocation, his call to youth to seek God, brought a Christian inspiration into areas of life where a secular world view had longdominated. His devotion to the Eucharist, both in his personal celebration of public Masses and in his encyclical on the subject, emphasised its place at the heart of the Faith. He restored a sense of devotion to Mary in the Church, adding a new set of Mysteries to the Rosary, and personally visiting many of her shrines worldwide. His final example of courage in suffering brought him a solidarity with sick and disabled people.

But... John Paul's pleading against war often fell on deaf ears, as did his appeals to Catholic institutions to adhere to the fullness of the Catholic faith, his call to the young to live chastely, his pleas for a renewal of priestly life. At the time of his death, scandals among the clergy, and local episcopal failure to deal with them, were widely known. Attendance at Mass across Europe, North America and Australasia had continued to fall during his pontificate. While he held high the host and chalice of the Eucharist, and knelt before them, elsewhere people simply felt they had no need for God, and gave their hearts instead to other things - material goods, sex, food, holidays. He was often lampooned as a ridiculous figure.

Back to Pope Gregory. How great was he? He sent missionaries to Britain, with lasting results that formed a base from where Germany and other parts of mainland Europe were evangelised. He was a prolific writer whose sermons and meditations have taught and inspired generations. He organised famine relief on a massive scale in Italy. He introduced liturgical reform. He set an example of personal holiness and simplicity of lifestyle among the clergy - disliking formal pomp at meals and always sharing his table. It was Gregory who first made extensive use of the term "servant of the servants of God" for the Pope. He was widely and deeply popular: people were grateful for the leadership he gave and the self-sacrificing way in which he gave it, never sparing himself and very evidently notseeking personal comfort or gain.

So, what of John Paul? Can he be called "the great"? Was he great? The crowds at his funeral called for his canonisation, as the crowd had called for Gregory's. There are parallels and comparisons. As Gregory failed to outlaw slavery - still an accepted practice in his day - so John Paul failed to get people to stop aborting their babies. While Gregory successfully sent missionaries to evangelise pagans in Europe, John Paul sought, with less success, to re-evangelise after centuries of Christianity had started to flag. John Paul's missionary zeal, his personal holiness and simplicity of life, his dislike of pomp, matched Gregory's. He did not engage in practical administration of the city of Rome in terms of its security or its food supply, as Gregory had had to do, although he didwelcome millions of people there annually on an unprecedented scale. He spoke more languages than Gregory - but then he needed to. He wrote more encyclicals, and on more complicated subjects (no one was talking about in-vitro fertilisation in the sixth century), and he wrote in a way that will last: the legacy of his writings is certainly on a Gregorian scale. His personal heroism is possibly greater.

John Paul achieved victory over a decades-long, vicious and cruel attempt to impose atheism on millions of people: his teaching, his personal courage, and his kindliness, faith and message of hope prevailed over Communism despite the latter having massive armaments, secret police, spies, prisons, and torture equipment at its disposal. In a century that had seen two hideous world wars and innumerable examples of massive human suffering, John Paul established a new Feast of Divine Mercy, giving men and women a practical means of accessing the forgiveness of a loving God.

Under John Paul, the Church found a voice with which to make common cause with people who had felt alienated from the Church - Jewish people, Christians from groups which had long broken with Catholicism, politicians, campaigners for various causes. In highlighting, and expressing sorrow for, mistakes and wrongdoing in the Church's history, John Paul gave Catholics a fresh sense of honesty and integrity.

John Paul took the Gospel message to a world that had assumed that it no longer had any relevance. He brought the name and the message of Christ into people's hearts and minds. He showed that Catholic doctrine and moral teachings had a fullness, integrity and beauty that nothing could match, even while they posed a challenge in their implications for daily living. He identified the Church with the cause of the poor, with the longing for peace and decency between people of different beliefs and ideas, with large and noble aspirations, with sorrow for sin and with hope for the future. In an era of doctrinal confusion, he launched and brought to fruition the great project of a new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which will stand as the Church's detailed statement of faith andteachings and prayer for centuries.

Greatness does not necessarily mean success: some of the greatest saints have been failures in the short term (Thomas More, Edmund Campion, the Japanese martyrs). But greatness does mean that something has been achieved that will last: think of Gregory's establishment of the papacy as a source of strength and integrity for the Church on the brink of its transition from the old Roman world to the new Medieval one. And it usually involves personal suffering, and certainly genuine - not feigned or obtrusive - humility.

I believe that John Paul was great - at least as great as Gregory and possibly greater, because the scale of things demanded this. While Gregory consolidated the power of the Church over a more limited geographic area, John Paul took the Gospel and the Sacraments to the ends of the earth. Gregory took the Church from the ancient world to the beginnings of the Medieval era. John Paul took the Church across the threshold of a new millennium and into the 21st century. I believe future centuries will hail him as "John Paul the Great" and that the crowds who hailed his sanctity in St Peter's Square were the "vox populi, vox Dei" just as Gregory's crowd had been centuries before.

That doesn't make him the last great Pope - there will be more, for God is generous. (And for that matter, incidentally, we may one day be analysing his successor's reign and talking about greatness too). It does mean that we should recognise him for what he was and what he did. John Paul's papacy had a quality of greatness about it, a message of hope, a sense of the Church being at the leading edge in great moments of history, of the Pope building for the future, bringing the message of Jesus Christ to people in extraordinary ways in extraordinary times. John Paul was not just personally holy and personally interesting - poet, philosopher, essayist, linguist, a man with a gift for friendship, a man of prayer, a courageous man with massive moral integrity matched with humour and greatintellectual gifts. He was also a great Pope.

[1] wikipedia.org/PopeGregoryI.
[2] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 4.
[3] Cantor, 1993, page 157. Quoted in Wikipedia entry, op.cit.
[4] A Lefebvrist priest – later disowned by the Society of St Peter and formally laicised – stabbed him in 1982 at Fatima. He drew blood but there was no lasting injury.

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