Sorry, that just came to mind there when trying to think of a title - it was in a Beano annual when I was small. It's a peculiar idea, though, greatness, isn't it? It's certainly not an unambiguous term, as John Quiggin as pointed out. How many people have been honoured with this term in our history? I can think of Cyrus of Persia, Alexander III of Macedon, Hanno of Carthage, Pompey, Constantine, Theodosius, Pope Saint Leo I, Pope Saint Gregory I, Charlemagne, Alfred of Wessex, Albertus Magnus, Peter I of Russia, Catherine II of Russia, Fredrick II of Prussia, and, um, Gonzo. A bit of a mixed bag there, so.
It hasn't taken long for a clamour to have gone up for the title of 'the great' to be thrust upon the last Pope; A.A. Gill was suitably scathing about this over the weekend:
'Television likes a celebrity death. It’s a denouement, a plot device, a commercial break. Television can put on its serious face, and newsreaders know they are the voice of history, not just of current affairs. Foreign correspondents can go purple — and they certainly rolled out the papal purple for the passing of the Pope. There was a steep curve in hagiography as the rolling news stations outbid each other to write the application for beatification. He started off as a good man, then a good pope, then a great pope, pope of the century, one of the greatest popes ever and ended up on Fox News as the greatest human being in the history of human beings and an über-pontiff for all mankind. You could almost hear the Hollywood producers saying: “Hey, do you think there’s a movie in this Pope guy? See what Bruce Willis’s availability is. Maybe Mel will direct.”'
Of course, truth be told, the term 'John Paul the Great' has been floating around for a few years now, so the phrase isn't quite as new as Mr Gill would make out, though it certainly hadn't been in common use until the last fortnight, with the likes of Cardinal Sodano tossing it round within moments of the Holy Father having breathed his last.
Of course, whether the term sticks is another matter. Certainly, while Leo I and Gregory I are widely remembered as 'Great' - even if hardly anyone can remember why - the phrase 'Nicolas the Great' is hardly to be found on anyone's lips nowadays, even though the ninth century pope was indeed once normally referred to as such.
It's very hard to tell whether people a few centuries down the road will remember Karol Jozef Wojtyla as John Paul the Great. Much will surely depend on popular support: if the current wave of enthusiasm for John Paul is not a purely ephemeral phenomenon, then there's a good chance people will commemorate him; since John XXIII is still remembered, nearly half a century after his death, as 'Good Pope John', I reckon John Paul stands a fairly good chance of being remembered as 'John Paul the Great'.
'There is no one as dead as a dead Pope.'
Much also will depend on John Paul's successor, and whether he honours John Paul as such. That won't be a simple matter of whether he speaks of John Paul as 'John Paul the Great'; more than that, the question will be the extent to which he follows the path and builds on the teaching of John Paul. If he, or later Popes, are inspired by John Paul, then he may well be remembered as 'the Great'. But that's a big 'if'. Popes, after all, have a habit of ignoring their predecessors.
And on top of that, there's that old cliche: 'history will decide'. Of course, that assumes that history is a force in itself, and not simply that which historians do, what historians write, but the basic idea is sound. Future generations will look back on John Paul's Petrine Ministry, and will judge it rather more objectively than we can. Look at the immediate reactions to his death. We need to step back, and to wait.
We're too close, and he's too big.
'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven...'
I was startled a few days ago to read an article by a Lutheran theologian, claiming that he had thought of John Paul as 'his Pope', and another article, this time by a prominent American Evangelical, arguing for John Paul's greatness as a Christian teacher and leader. I had visions of Martin Luther and John Calvin revolving in their graves. Timothy George, the Evangelist in question, recognised the importance of John Paul's ecumenical agenda:
'He was eagerly interested in reaching out to everybody. I think his greatest interest, ecumenically, was not with Protestants or evangelicals, it was with the Eastern Orthodox churches. He talked about the church being able to breathe with its two lungs, of which he meant East and West. He saw the Protestant movement and evangelicalism as an offshoot of one of the lungs, and therefore not urgent on the agenda. But having said that, I think he came to see, particularly in the last probably 10 to 15 years of his pontificate, the enormous importance of evangelicalism as a world Christian force.'
And indeed, it does appear that while his ecumenical priorities were with the Eastern Churches, he did a enormous amount of bridge-building with the Evangelical Churches, most of which I was unaware of. It probably didn't hurt that all his teaching and theology was so thoroughly grounded in Scripture; as Scott Hahn has put it, John Paul was 'a pope who could speak to Protestants.'
It seems that he was a Pope who could speak to anyone, in fact, and would do so. The World Day of Prayer held in Assisi in 1986 was proof of that, as he invited members of other world religions to join him in praying for peace - there can be few people who thought, when a Polish 'conservative' became Pope, that within a few years he'd be kneeling in prayer alongside Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and native American and African shamans. His respect - indeed, love - for the Jewish people was spelled out from the first, a legacy perhaps of the many Jewish friends of his childhood. It wasn't just religious people that John Paul was interested in, either. A gifted philospher, he regularly used to hold seminars in his summer residence at Castel Gandalfo with atheist and agnostic philosphers.
Despite his constant struggle at the ecumenical coalface, John Paul always stayed firm and held to the traditions of the Church, working to achieve a common ground, without compromising the Faith. For this, despite all his achievements, his liberal enemies called him 'conservative'; while others have called him a 'liberal'. In truth, he was both: a defender of the Faith; an enemy of the commodification of everyday life and of the objectification of women; an implacable opponent not merely of war and the death penalty, but of abortion and euthanasia too.
So where does this leave him? Can terms like 'conservative' or 'liberal' ever do him justice? In truth, do they ever do any of us justice? How many of us really fit snugly into such neat boxes?
But wasn't he out of step with the times? Of course, but then it's hard to think of a time when the Church marched in step with the secular world. What's that about marrying a fashion today and being left a widow tomorrow? That's a mistake the Church has never made before, and it didn't make it under John Paul, who while far more hopeful than his friend Joseph Ratzinger clearly thinks that the West's notions of progress are profoundly dangerous. And he might be right: we have a tendency nowadays to babble on about our rights, but it's rare that you hear people talking about their duties.
'Pontifications on a Sunday afternoon'
Alfred the Okay, who resolutely declines the honorific 'the Great', had this to say on the matter of the Holy Father's demise:
'My number 3 son, still reeling at the untimely croakedness of JP2, asked me what exactly the Pope did…
"What exactly does the Pope do for his money then Dad?"
"Oh, you know, he sort of wears a dress, does a lot of blessings and can’t have any sex at all"
"How much does a Pope get paid then?"
"You know, I don’t think they actually get paid anything – but they do have free unfettered use of the Popemobile"…
"So, the Pope, doesn’t actually get paid, drives a car that looks like a greenhouse, wears a dress and never has sex – ever?"..
"You know, being a Pope sounds like a pretty crap job all round, really"'
There's something to that, strangely. To an outsider it must look as though the Pope had a cushy life, what with all his meals being cooked for him, and the adulation of millions, but that could hardly be further from the truth.
Take a look at any general obituary or appraisal of the Pope - neither a hagiographic one, nor one with an axe to grind. I know, it's hard to do, but this one from the Telegraph isn't bad, and the BBC one is pretty good. This one from The New Republic is very perceptive. John Allen's piece in America's National Catholic Reporter is excellent. Then there's George Weigel, the Pope's official biographer - on the one hand he is pretty much the pope's biggest fan, but on the other he comes pretty close to knowing him on the inside, something no other writer on the pope can claim. You'd be doing well to find a better guide to the Pope's life, thought, and achievements, than Weigel. Any of these articles would do.
John Paul's mother died when he was nine; his only brother died when he was just twelve; his father died when he was twenty, shortly after the Nazi invasion that saw his country devastated, his university closed down, and his church suppressed - about a third of Poland's priests were killed in the concentration camps. Many of his childhood friends - Jewish ones in particular - were killed in the war, while John Paul was forced to work as a labourer in a a quarry. He joined Poland's cultural resistance, risking the death penalty, doing what he could to preserve his country's culture, something the Nazis were determined to annihilate.
It was against this background that the young John Paul realised that he had a vocation and joined an underground seminary, convinced that there must have been a reason why he had been allowed live when everyone he had ever loved had died. By throwing himself on God's mercy, putting his whole life into God's hands, he was making a sacrifice of himself, denying himself the luxuries and the love we all hope for in order to serve God as best he could.
Such was the life he led as a priest and bishop in Poland under the shadow of the Kremlin. Becoming Pope in 1978, his active life was cut short by an assassination attempt in 1981 - he survived, but never recovered his full strength, and in his later years he shattered his thigh bone, needed hip surgery, had a large tumour removed from his colon, and suffered from Parkinson's disease. Despite all this, he continued in his ministry right up to the end, determined to show the World that human life always matters, putting into practice something he had preached all his life. He never sought pity for this, since it was his choice, but surely he earned our respect. Christ, he said, did not descend from the cross. Nor, he implied, should we.
A Mirror of Christ?
There's a magnificent chapter in Chesterton's book on Saint Francis of Assisi, entitled 'The Mirror of Christ,' where he argues that as Francis modelled himself on Our Lord, so we can gain an understanding of Our Lord from Francis:
'It may give a much milder shock if I say here, what most of us have forgotten, that if St. Francis was like Christ, Christ was to that extent like St. Francis. And my present point is that it is really very enlightening to realise that Christ was like St. Francis. What I mean is this; that if men find certain riddles and hard sayings in the story of Galilee, and if they find the answers to those riddles in the story of Assisi, it really does show that a secret has been handed down in one religious tradition and no other. It shows that the casket that was locked in Palestine can be unlocked in Umbria; for the Church is the keeper of the keys.
Now in truth while it has always seemed natural to explain St. Francis in the light of Christ, it has not occurred to many people to explain Christ in the light of St. Francis. Perhaps the word "light" is not here the proper metaphor; but the same truth is admitted in the accepted metaphor of the mirror. St. Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible. Exactly in the same sense St. Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries. Yet as a matter of fact, many minor things that seem mysteries in the mouth of Christ would seem merely characteristic paradoxes in the mouth of St. Francis. It seems natural to reread the more remote incidents with the help of the more recent ones.'
The 'problem of pain' is one of the central ones in philosophy, and despite numerous valiant attempts at theodicy over the centuries, Christians have never been able to explain why we suffer. Christ never explained to us why we suffer. What he did, was to show us how to suffer.
John Paul's life, centred at all times on Christ, was an unforgettable reminder of that.