Like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, he both exerted geopolitical influence and reasserted the teaching authority of the Holy See

On Monday, Parish clergy might, if they wished, observe the optional memorial of the Blessed John Paul II, who this time next year will have become Saint John Paul. I don’t know how widely masses of Blessed John Paul were in fact celebrated; but I suspect that the day was unnoticed by many.

At the time of his death, this would have been unimaginable. Rome had been filled by tens of thousands of young people, who poured in to pray, with him and for him, as he died; on hearing they were there in the piazza outside, he said “I have searched for you, and now you have come to me…”. Even when he was dying, said one priest, he continued to teach us; dying himself, he taught us how to die.

Time changes all things. His funeral was the single largest gathering of heads of state in history, surpassing the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. Four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers, and more than 14 leaders of other religions attended alongside the faithful. It is thought to have been the largest single pilgrimage of Christianity ever, with numbers estimated in excess of four million mourners gathering in Rome. The crowds who gathered famously set up the chant “Santo subito”.


Almost immediately, priests and bishops began referring to him as “John Paul the Great”. Will that be what we call him when he is canonised? There is no official process for declaring a pope “Great”; the title simply establishes itself through popular and continued usage. Three popes have been called ‘the Great’: Nicholas I (not often remembered today) and two undeniably great pontiffs, who do often come to mind: Leo I, who reigned from 440–461 and Gregory I, 590–604, after whom the Gregorian Chant is named.

As for Blessed John Paul, those closest to him certainly saw him as a truly great man. His successor, Benedict XVI, referred to him as “the great Pope John Paul II” in his first address from the loggia of St Peter’s Basilica, and continued to do so over the years that followed.

He was of course, even more than Benedict was to be, the bête noire of the Tabletistas. The late Peter Hebblethwaite, the Tablet’s most acidulous critic of traditionalist apologists, was quoted in the Catholic World Report as saying during his lifetime that “Nothing he has done will outlast him. Not the Catechism, not Veritatis Splendor, not the document on the ordination of women… The new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start… again”.

Well, he was wrong, big time. Not only did his successor reaffirm these documents: no pope would or could now “put them aside and start again”. After the chaos of the post-conciliar years, he re-established the Church’s capacity (seriously compromised under the pontificate of the unfortunate but underestimated Paul VI) to defend the stability, the authority, and the objectivity of Catholic teaching.

But what about his personal “greatness”? The two popes thought of as “the great” (we can probably discount Pope Nicholas) — that is, Leo and Gregory — both lived in times of vast geo-political upheavals in which they themselves were major players, both defending and preserving the Church herself and exercising a direct influence over the historical forces that had been unleashed by the great struggles for power that unfolded around them. Here, surely is a striking parallel with the Pope John Paul. I am struck particularly by an episode in the life of Leo the Great. In the year 452 when Northern Italy was under attack by Attila the Hun, Leo faced him near Mantua and persuaded him to withdraw his army. “I can conquer men”, Attila is recorded as saying: “but not the Lion (Leo)”.

I am irresistibly reminded of an episode in the life of Pope John Paul. We now know that by the beginning of December, in 1980, in response to the Polish Solidarity movement’s extraordinary success, the Soviets had made a definite decision to invade Poland and had moved several divisions of the Red Army up to the Polish border. On December 16, the Pope wrote a letter to the Soviet Leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Its message is firm. It conveys clearly that this invasion would be different, that the Poles would resist, with his support. We cannot say that this letter was what persuaded the Soviets to draw back and adopt an entirely different strategy for Poland: but we can certainly say that the Polish problem had become intractable mainly because of the Pope’s influence, that the Russians had come to understand this, and that without him, Soviet policy would have been vastly different. There could now be no more invasions.

Gregory the Great, too, was faced with a period of political instability. He took over the governance of the city of Rome, feeding a starving people; and he saw to the city’s defence, raising troops and resisting a number of incursions from the North. Undoubtedly all this was part of a process leading to the growth of the secular political powers of the papacy, now in the immortal words of 1066 and All That, universally held to be “a bad thing”.

And here, in a vital sense we can say that this Pope’s geopolitical involvements show him to have exceeded in the worldly sense and transcended in the spiritual sense, both of these two great predecessors. The collapse of the Eastern bloc is one of the great historical convulsions: this pope not merely expected it and prayed for it, he played by general consent a large part in bringing it about. But this vast political result was brought about, not by a reversion into the papacy’s history of political intrigue and manipulation, but by asserting the superior strength of the power of the spirit. “How many divisions has the pope”, Stalin once famously sneered: Pope John Paul demonstrated that in the end “divisions” are not really what counts, even in the exercise of worldly power.

The other striking parallel with both Leo and Gregory was in John Paul’s ultimately successful reassertion of the authority of the pope to teach and define doctrine. Leo, of course, was the Pope who sent the Council of Chalcedon his famous tome — a statement defining the doctrine of the two natures of Christ — with the instruction that it was to be accepted by the Council without any inquiry or discussion. Roma locuta est; causa finita est is not one of Leo’s sayings; but there can be little doubt that he did more than any other Pope to establish what has been a central part of the papacy’s functions ever since, the duty to defend the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching.

Gregory seems at first less doctrinally assertive: he it was who described himself as Pope (truthfully) as “servant of the servants of God”; and he tended not to assert his own views about the primacy of the bishop of Rome over all other bishops. But it was, nevertheless, he who first used the phrase ex cathedra to indicate that when he spoke he did so with the full weight and authority of the papal office.

I don’t know whether or not, when, next year Benedict XVI’s predecessor becomes St John Paul, he will once more widely and spontaneously be called “John Paul the Great”. The focus at his canonisation will also be on the pontificate of Pope John, undoubtedly a lovable and holy man; this will tend to divert attention from the exceptional character of John Paul’s pontificate. Who knows? Perhaps that is WHY they are being canonised together (but I mustn’t be paranoid). All I know is that he will always be “John Paul the Great” to me; and I suspect that in the end that is how the Church will come naturally to think of him.