Monday, April 4
The Greatness of John Paul II
I do not have to tell you that the Holy Father has been the primary topic of conversation in these parts. The whole Notre Dame community has been pouring out impressive affection, from all three presidents to the average Joe students. The Basilica has brought out the black drapings (show that black still is the color of real mourning, and everyone knows it), and a lot of daily prayer services have been planned for these novemdiales.
But amongst us, the discussion has focused on a surprising revelation: how truly awesome the Pope, this Pope, really was. Don't get me wrong: we thought he was absolutely amazing on before he passed. But we all have agreed: there is something about John Paul no longer being "the Pope" and instead having entered fully into the eternity of history and of heaven, that has opened our eyes even more.
1) Leo the Great is known for convincing Attila the Hun not to sack Rome, effectively altering the entire balance of barbarian/Church political relations. John Paul II is also comparably great -- having altered the balance of power between the Church and oppressive regimes through his active support and work with Poland's solidarity, hastening the fall of Communism.
2) Gregory the Great is known for reforming the Church clergy and practice, renewing the papacy. Surely, John Paul is great in this respect as well. When, as George Weigel recounts, John Paul ascended the throne of Peter, it was fully expected that he would embrace a "first among equals" approach, with little or no curia or governing influence on other diocese. Rather, the Pope, through the force of his will, the brilliance of his diplomacy, the energy of his travels, the appointment of bishops, and his support for flourishing movements faithful to the Catholic tradition, not only renewed the papacy, but began the renewal of the American hierarchy, the global priesthood, and has given new impetus to consecrated life. Since his election, the dignity given to Mary, to the Eucharist, and other sacramental celebrations has increased more than "significantly."
3) Albert the Great (not a Pope) is great for his theological and philosophical writings. John Paul, the only modern pope to write his own encyclicals, was not only a university professor versed in half a dozen languages, but an extremely competent theologian. His own thoughts on Mariology, on the Eucharist, on Ecclesiology, on the theology of marriage and of the body, on human work and art, and on so many other subjects are beyond profound -- they are inspiring scores of academics specializing specifically in his thought.
4) St. Bernard of Clairvaux, great if not "a Great," inspired an entire generation of Europe to dedicate itself to prayer and seeking holiness in Cistercian cloisters. By my own personal witness, and by so many which I have heard in past times and in these few days, one of John Paul II's greatest contributions to the life of the Church was to inspire a generation of committed Catholics. Because of Teresa of Calcutta and especially because of John Paul, we discovered what sanctity looks like, laughs like, talks and prays like. We discovered that sanctity is possible, and we all thought: "I want to be like him!"
Dan pointed out that there is no one in history, save for St. Paul and perhaps for Caesar, whose contribution of writings and of actions have contributed so profoundly the course of human development. Who else has written the caliber and quantity of John Paul II? Who else has had such a concrete impact on the course of global events? Now, who else has done both? Can you think of anyone since St. Paul?
"The Great" is a title that is given, NOT by official capacity of the Church, but instead by popular acclaim. We've decided to pray for the Pope rather than to him until the conclusion of the novemdiales. But we're not seven days from a flutter of petitions and a loud cry: John Paul the Gr---!!!