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.