You may have heard a number of people refer to Saint Pope John Paul the Second as “Saint John Paul the Great”. With this title, the faithful are surely recognizing the great contribution he made both to Church theology (through such extensive teachings as the Theology of the Body) as well as the impact he made on the Western world for his contribution to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
The truth is, however, the designation of “the Great” may or may not properly apply to St. John Paul II. Before this, only two or three Popes have been considered “Great” and this was only determined by Church historians many years after their death: St. Pope Leo the Great, St. Pope Gregory I the Great, and debatably St. Pope Nicholas I the Great.
So what makes a Pope “Great” by the standards of the Church?
Professor of Church History Steve Weidenkopf explains that “What links Leo, Gregory, and Nicholas as great popes is the fact that all three significantly contributed to Catholic theology and practice, and all exercised leadership in a time of grave temporal crisis.”
The Popes who have been given this title previously certainly meet this criteria. St. Pope Leo the Great is known for his substantial work defining and defending the two natures of Christ against heresy. In the temporal realm, Leo kept Attila the Hun from capturing Rome in the 5th century. St. Pope Gregory I the Great protected the role of the papacy against secular rulers that wanted to influence it. He is known for this written works on the vocation and roles of the Pope and the bishops. Pope Gregory was known for his humility and generous contributions to the poor. Pope Nicholas also protected papal primacy, but against the incursion of bishops. At the same time, he defended the sacrament of marriage. While Frankish bishops recognized the divorce and remarriage of a secular leader, Pope Gregory asserted the indissolubility of marriage and excommunicated the errant bishops.
Yet, “the Great” is not an official pronouncement of the Church, like the designation given to doctors of the Church. Rather, it is a way of recognizing the tremendous contributions of these popes, looking back over the history of the Church. Church historians gradually come to a consensus and the the tag “the Great” eventually goes down in history.Is St. Pope John Paul II destined to be known forever as “the Great”? While some schools and other institutions have already adopted the name, only time will tell whether or not this saintly leader will be known as “Pope John Paul the Great” for centuries to come.
Is St. Pope John Paul II destined to be known forever as “the Great”? While some schools and other institutions have already adopted the name, only time will tell whether or not this saintly leader will be known as “Pope John Paul the Great” for centuries to come.