Was John Paul II ‘The Great’?

Recent reports from Rome indicate Pope John Paul II will soon be beatified. This is after the title “The Great” … Continued

Recent reports from Rome indicate Pope John Paul II will soon be beatified. This is after the title “The Great” has already been bestowed upon the Polish pope in so naming a university, an institute, and a high school. The issue of sainthood and greatness, however, are two different matters. “The Great” has been reserved in history to pontiffs like Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) and Gregory I (r. 590-604) whose administrations of the Church were transformative in history. Sainthood, on the other hand, is a matter of exemplary individual behavior. One can be a great administrator without being a saint (e.g. Innocent III), and a saint can be suspect in bureaucratic administration (e.g. Pius X) but still be holy. So, independently of the canonization process it can be asked if Pope John Paul II deserves to be called “The Great.”

Certainly, Pope John Paul II was popular. His handsome face, vigorous voice and communications’ skills earned him the epithet, “rock star.” His encyclicals maintained the progressive thrust of social democracy such as found in the European Union while criticizing secularist tendencies that were not pro-life. He will always be remembered and admired for his globe-hopping rallies that gathered tens of thousands in various football stadiums around the world. Each became a media event and strengthened what became the theme of his papacy, namely to personify Catholicism everywhere with the charisma of his personality and forcefulness of his preaching. Just the fact that he had the third longest papal administration in history from 1978-2005 earns him consideration as “The Great.”

Inevitably, of course, some claimed a “Dark Face” to John Paul II’s papacy. His top-down approach to the papal power he wielded led to comparisons with Stalinism because John Paul II’s papacy was considered a regime “well-versed in dogma, censorship, heresy, deception, bureaucracy, hagiography and personality cults.” Even those who were more moderate in criticism like Father Andrew Greeley (The Making of the Pope, 2005) saw contradictions in how John Paul II claimed continuity with the II Vatican Council while undermining some of its central reforms. The many bishops he named were uniformly conservative but of uneven pastoral quality.

The 800-pound gorilla that blocks the way to “The Great” epithet is the pope’s mishandling of the pedophile crisis among the clergy and hierarchy. The pope defended and even promoted clergy suspect for pedophilia like Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna, Austria, and defenders of clerical pedophiles like Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos. For many years the pope protected Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was eventually disgraced for his sexual degeneracy. We may never know if John Paul II was himself guilty of covering up the scandals or was simply badly advised. There can be no doubt, however, that he left much of the battle against corruption to his successor , Benedict XVI. All in all, “The Great” might wait, say for a hundred years.

My own opinions are shaped by two events. The first was John Paul II’s 1983 visit to Nicaragua shortly after the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and when the Sandinista government was under attack from counter-revolutionaries funded (illegally as it turned out) by the Reagan Administration. At the papal Mass, the pope refused to allow mention in the Prayer of the Faithful for the loyal citizens who had been killed by the rebel contras. Instead of allowing the Eucharist to bring both sides together in faith, John Paul’s recalcitrance prolonged division and conflict in Nicaragua. I was watching this event on the television in the home of Latino lay pastoral leaders, deeply committed to ministry. Before the mass had ended, the host stood up and turned off the TV saying, “This man does not understand our people.”

I also believe that John Paul should have resigned from the papacy when his afflictions incapacitated him. Perhaps, if he had been more capable, the cover-ups and pedophilia might have been more swiftly addressed. His stated reason for not resigning was to suffer “for the sake of the Kingdom of God.” But instead the Church leadership suffered.

In conclusion, Was John Paul II holy? Likely. Was he “The Great”? Dubious.

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About

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • Sajanas

    I think more history needs to be written before you can declare someone that died not terribly long ago both a saint and a “The Great”. If you look at the terrible pedophilia scandals happening now, a good chunk of them took place under JPII’s watch. And this article doesn’t mention his continuous denial of birth control to an over populated world, and his refusal to admit that condoms could be helpful in preventing AIDS, because the Vatican stance on birth control is more important than 40 million dead Africans.If the Catholic Church surges back, I’m sure he’ll be remembered well enough, but if it continues to do poorly, he’ll be remembered more for being the friendly face that hid all the Church’s troubles rather than dealing with them.

  • usapdx

    Even that he did great and good things, the time element is lacking for such a title. What great things did Greg the great do? I do not agree with some of his things in this day of age. History will tell.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    The modern Pope is King of a small principality. It is not likely that such a person would ever have much opportunity to be “Great.” John Paul II had some influence over the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union. But overall, I do not think that his retrenchment of Catholic convervatism has been for the best, not for the Catholic Church, nor for the worls.

  • areyousaying

    Simply compare the angelic face of John Paul with that of Ratzinger. Catholics and non-Catholics alike mourn the loss of John Paul and his replacement by the punitive Hitler Youth Ratzinger.

  • letitbe

    OYE Those Poloks! Even though the fella protected his Bankers and or Money; Peace Be Upon “J.P.2″ {I’m Sure He Did’nt Take It With Him But Left the moneys For US Interesting: I’ve been Putting Together The “There is a Chapter Entitled, “The Crux Of That part, of many, of the “New [Song] Philosophy” Is That it proves THAT”WE [i] NEVER DIE”: And This can Even Can Be Proven in PHYSICS Today!!!!!!! AndTheres an Even more profound Prophecy, that finally will make sense today (for Those who seek “Another Hint: WE [i] Know the Secrets, Not of what IS of All That hath Died but NOt died; But WHY? and HOW? on Miracle-Base S.pace S.hip Earth and Elsewhere. AndALL that YeYo See’th around [HERE] Weather-Wise, which is something (NOt a Phenomena/on, Which YeYo might Perceive [i.e., Gaia] as Being Angry; but It can be Proven beyond Doubt via modern PHYSICS/SCIENCE (Zero Religions) Today. Even The Brightest Scientist on Eart Today, will slap themselves on their Heads, let Alone Turn The Science World UPSIDE-DOWN; It was/is in front of our Faces/Souls all this time; Even The AEGYPTiANS, The MAYAN’s et al. Credits to ALL, EVERY & ANY of Our Father/Mother-Prophet(s) {pbu Them}.PS again: WE[i] Know WHY & HOW The Dinosaurs Went Extinct and Some Civilizations. And HOW and WHAT will be for the Future-Bound’d and Space-Forth’s Minded’s! Hint: IT’s ALL Natural! The Discovery (Knowledge) Will be Released to The World at large imminently by Us APOCALYPTALiEN’s Of S.S. Earth (by manymany Names).HARK: Good Tidings: BEhold the “HAPPY EVERY-DAY! (Like A Birth-Day).Praise The HOLYi No Mon/WOM!HAila-YeYo, Ya!

  • Hoops44

    blindly alluding to a Stalin comparison, without giving the actual reference (similar to his fans calling the current pope hitler) tells you all you need to know about this writer. he wouldn’t know greatness even if it came to earth and died for the mercy of his soul.

  • MarkfromPA

    Interesting article here. It is sad that Pope John Paul II didn’t do more to support abuse victims. Also the Pope could have done more for the people and the Church in Latin America. I agree with you on the issue of the Pope resigning as sadly Church leadership did suffer due to his physical and mental decline. Pope John Paul II was a great man but not perfect.

  • amelia45

    This is stupid – when so much anger still resonates around the world over the failure of the Church while John Paul was pope to deal with the pedophiles and while many women seek a greater role in the church. It is stupid when this is not a Pope who brought even simple modern scientific miracles – like birth control – into acceptance in the Church.A great Pope will do the things John Paul didn’t.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Tony, you hit the nail on the head. Bravo.

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