What Makes Popes Great

John Johnson's picture

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Gregory the Great, the last pope to be officially remembered as Magnus. 1,409 years after Pope Gregory's death, we are on the cusp of Blessed John Paul II's canonization and the organic proclimation of the Church is resounding: "John Paul the Great." Considering this will only be the third time in Catholic history that this is happened, we should pay attention.

What makes Leo, Gregory, and John Paul II so "great" anyway? Believe it or not, there is a common denominator: they all saved Western Civilization. By "Western Civilization," I don't mean anything specifically geographical. I mean that conduit of intellectual, political, and religious tradition that has transmitted the richness of antiquity and Christianity to the world throughout the centuries. It's a big deal; it's Christendom itself, and in our own day, it's facing another life-or-death threat. God's answer to such threats over the years has been univocal - when times are tough, He doesn't just give us saints, He gives us THE GREAT saints.

Leo the Great: Pope from 440 to 461.
Leo's theology buttressed the Christological understanding of Christ's fully human and Divine natures which set the stage for the orthodox rulings of the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon. After the warlord Attila had swept through Europe and was on his way to attack Rome, Pope Leo went North to meet him in Mantua. We aren't sure why, but after talking with Leo, Attila decided to go back home, where he died. Rome was spared; Christ's two natures were defined. That's great.

Gregory the Great: Pope from 590 to 604.
Gregory was born into a lot of money which he abandoned for the monastic life. As a monk, Gregory was sent to be the Papal Legate to Constantinople in an attempt to gain diplomatic support for Rome which had fallen to the Lombards and was in shambles. When his work was complete he retired to his monastery only to be later elected pope by unyielding popular demand. Desirous for the contemplative life, he ran away to his monastery but was immediately found and drug back to be the pope. With Rome being decimated from plague and rioting, Gregory's first act as pope was to process through the streets with an image of Our Lady. Plague over.

Gregory's accomplishments are many but perhaps the greatest is his organization of Benedictine Monasticism. By authoring the only accounts of the holy St. Benedict, Gregory used these stories along with land he had donated, to establish the tradition of Western monasticism. Having first hand knowledge of the political and ecclesial confusion in the Byzantine Empire, Gregory was, no doubt, aware of their looming disintegration and wanted to preserve Catholic tradition in a world going to crap. He succeeded. Even up until now these monasteries have been the main pipeline by which Western Tradition and the Sacred Liturgy have been preserved. You like that Bible you're reading? Thank St. Gregory. Moreover, Immediately after Gregory's death, Islam began to spread like wildfire just about everywhere except where Benedictines had infused the culture. Happy you don't have to bow to mecca every morning? Thank St. Gregory.
Through the work of St. Gregory the Great, the entirety of Roman Catholic culture has been preserved and transmitted. That's great.

John Paul the Great: Pope 1978-2005.
A man whose accomplishments we do not have space to list - nor do we need to, as you already know him. In light of his "great," predecessors, though, one thing should be noted: John Paul II entered the Papacy amid the greatest crises (external and internal) the Church has ever faced. Modernism and all the "isms" that comprise it, which Pius X called "the synthesis of all heresies" has threatened to exterminate the Catholic Church. It is no doubt the greatest threat the Church has ever faced, and if we make it out of this one before time stops, we can thank John Paul II. Having lived through the worst of fascism and communism, he took the Keys in a century that had seen more Catholic martyrdoms than any in history. Like his great predecessors, he was responsible for seeing the Church through nothing less than an existential threat.


Each of these great men have had to develop "the new evangelization" to deal with the obstacles of the day the Church faced. The distinctive character of any method of evangelization is the condition of the world the Church finds her self in at any given moment. The Gospel must be received "in the mode of the receiver" (Summa, I, 84,1). This is precisely the reason Saints Francis and Dominic founded their religious orders. From the monasteries, to the mendicants, the Church has always adapted Her presentation of the Gospel to be well-received. And this might be exactly why Pope John Paul II will be remembered as Great.

Though the world has yet to see the immensity of his contribution, one in particular stands out: John Paul II has articulated the theological significance of man and woman in union, and bestowed on them an evangelical mission which is the Christian family.

Whereas Leo preserved Western Civilization through Christology, and Gregory preserved it through Monasticism, John Paul II shall be called great because he has preserved Western Civilization through the family. Besides promulgating a new Catechism, and penning splented encyclicals, he should be credited with sparking this new evangelization at the most fundamental roots of society. And that's great. 

Saints Gregory and Leo the Great; Blessed John Paul the Great, Pray for us.

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