Can We Refer to Pope St. John Paul II ‘the Great’?

COMMENTARY: In his letter to the Polish bishops for the centennial of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI makes the case for ‘the Great’ as a recognition of the late Holy Father’s impact on history.

Pope John Paul II with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during his papal inauguration Oct. 22, 1978, in Vatican City.The pope emeritus wrote a letter to the Polish bishops for the centennial of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II, May 18, 2020.
Pope John Paul II with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during his papal inauguration Oct. 22, 1978, in Vatican City.The pope emeritus wrote a letter to the Polish bishops for the centennial of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II, May 18, 2020. (photo: © L’Osservatore Romano via Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

“St. John Paul the Great.”

The case is now sufficiently made — by Pope Francis and by his predecessor — that those who wish can use that title with confidence. Over time, it will likely be adopted in the Church’s official documents.

In his letter to the Polish bishops for the centennial of the birth of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI makes the case for “the Great” as a recognition of the late Holy Father’s impact on history.

Benedict also argues that John Paul not only changed the world but “restored” the Church at a time when her very existence was questioned. The letter also clarifies how the immensely popular feast of Divine Mercy took its present form.


John Paul the Great

In his letter, Benedict XVI takes up the question of whether John Paul should be called “the Great.”

The idea of John Paul being a figure of rare historical impact — a “great” — was already abroad while he was still alive. In 1996, while a student at the University of Cambridge, I attended a lecture given by the recently retired president of Poland, Lech Wał sa on this date, May 18. I was able to meet him afterward at a reception, and, given that it was John Paul’s 76th birthday, I asked him what he thought about the Holy Father’s role in the liberation of Poland and the defeat of Soviet communism.

“I don’t think about it all,” Wałęsa replied, taking me aback. The translator soon added the explanation: “Because the Holy Father is like the sun. I don’t think about the sun, but without the sun, life would not be possible.”

In the light of that extravagant praise for his fellow Polish patriot, even “the Great” may seem too modest.

There was an effort, immediately upon his death in 2005, to give John Paul the title “Great.” Just 13 hours after his death, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, celebrating Mass for Divine Mercy Sunday at St. Peter’s Basilica, spoke of “Giovanni Paolo II, anzi, Giovanni Paolo il Grande” — “John Paul, indeed, John Paul the Great.”

Benedict XVI’s first words on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election were, “Dopo il grande papa …” — “After the great pope … .”

However, soon afterward, there was a sense that it was too soon — after all, John Paul was not yet a canonized saint. Benedict did not use the appellation grande after that.

Now the “Great” has returned. Pope Francis released an interview book in February for John Paul’s centennial. Written with Luigi Maria Epicoco, the book is entitled San Giovanni Paolo Magno. In Italian, grande and magno are both used to translate the Latin magnus, which is rendered in English as “great.”

Benedict XVI explains that “great” relates to the “human dimension” of a pope’s impact, noting that it has a “political connotation” for the only two popes who have that title — Leo the Great (440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604).

“If we compare both stories [of Leo and Gregory] with that of John Paul II, the similarity is unmistakable,” writes Benedict. While “leaving open” whether “the epithet ‘the great’ will prevail or not,” Benedict persuasively makes the case, noting that John Paul was “an essential element” in the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet communist empire. It is certainly plausible to argue that Moscow’s “evil empire” was a far graver historical threat than either Leo or Gregory faced.

The title “the Great” will not so much be decreed as develop organically. Now, with the support of both Pope Francis and Benedict XVI, Catholics favorably disposed to the title should freely use it.


Restorer of the Church

“Paul VI brought the [Second Vatican] Council to an end with energy and determination,” writes Benedict. “But after its conclusion, he faced ever more pressing problems that ultimately questioned the existence of the Church Herself. … Therefore, an almost impossible task was awaiting the new Pope.”

John Paul would become, Benedict argues, the “liberating restorer” of the Church from its weakened state in the cultural, political and ecclesial turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. The term “restoration” has an important history with Benedict; in the 1985 Ratzinger Report interview book, the then-cardinal called for a “restoration” of Church life 20 years after the Second Vatican Council had concluded. Whether that was needed, what it would be like and how it could be accomplished was massively controversial at the time.

“The deliberations of the Council had been presented to the public as a dispute over the Faith itself, which seemed to deprive the Council of its infallible and unwavering sureness,” writes Benedict in his centennial letter.

Not long after his call for “restoration” in 1985, the project for a new catechism was launched. That prodigious collaboration between John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger would become the Catechism of the Catholic Church, their most important initiative. It would clarify that the “Faith itself” was not in dispute any longer.


The Feast of Divine Mercy

As a gift to the Church for the centennial of St. John Paul the Great’s birth, Pope Francis has decreed that the feast of St. Faustina Kowalska, the visionary of the Divine Mercy apparitions, will now be added to the universal Roman calendar. John Paul himself had canonized St. Faustina during the Great Jubilee of 2000 as the first saint of the third millennium. Her feast day is Oct. 5 and will be observed as an optional memorial.

In the Divine Mercy apparitions St. Faustina was asked by the Lord Jesus to establish a feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday immediately after Easter. John Paul wanted to implement this request, but that Sunday is of great liturgical importance. It concludes the Octave of Easter, which is an extension of Easter itself. It is liturgically part of Easter Sunday, as it were. Could the Easter Octave be modified?

John Paul thought yes, but now Benedict reveals that he proceeded with “humility.”

“However, before the final decision was made, he asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to express its view on the appropriateness of this date,” Benedict writes. “We responded negatively because such an ancient, traditional and meaningful date like the Sunday ‘in Albis’ concluding the Octave of Easter should not be burdened with modern ideas. It was certainly not easy for the Holy Father to accept our reply. Yet, he did so with great humility and accepted our negative response a second time. Finally, he formulated a proposal that left the Second Sunday of Easter in its historical form but included Divine Mercy in its original message.”

The solution announced on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2000 — at the canonization Mass of St. Faustina — was that the Sunday within the Easter Octave would remain just that, with no changes in prayers. But it would also be called “Divine Mercy Sunday.” The Collect for the Mass already spoke of God’s mercy, so it was fitting. Thus John Paul implemented the visions of St. Faustina but respected the Tradition of the Church.

The subsequent judgment of the piety of the People of God has been universal and unanimous in favor of the devotion. God himself gave his approval in 2005, when he called John Paul home. Benedict notes that suitability of the new feast became apparent at “the hour of his death. Pope John Paul II died in the first moments of the newly established Feast of Divine Mercy.”

Benedict himself — who opposed the request of John Paul twice as cardinal-prefect — was converted. In his funeral homily for John Paul, the only quotation he employed from the vast writings of the late Holy Father concerned Divine Mercy. He does the same in his centennial letter.

Benedict subsequently chose Divine Mercy Sunday in 2011 to beatify John Paul. Pope Francis chose Divine Mercy Sunday in 2014 for the canonization.

There is something beautiful in the combination of “the Great,” which speaks of worldly influence, and “mercy,” which the world often regards as weakness. John Paul’s life teaches that the greatness of God lies not as much in his omnipotence, but in his mercy.

St. John Paul the Great, pray for us!

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

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