'Great' title for John Paul?

Correction — May 3, 2011
The image caption in this article states two prior Popes have been titled "great" - but the article text states three popes have held this title. Three is the correct number. The three popes who held this title were Pope Leo I, Pope Gregory I, and Pope Nicholas I. All three were later sainted.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

If recent trends are to portend the future, late Roman Catholic pontiff John Paul II may be known to posterity as "John Paul the Great."

A growing portion of Catholics, and even senior clergy, have begun to use the title, which has been held previously by only three out of history's 264 popes.

"John Paul the Great"? Only two of history's 264 popes have, to date, been accorded the title

Pope Gregory I of the sixth century, Leo I of the fifth century, and Nicholas I of the ninth century up to now, have alone been acclaimed "Great" in church tradition.

Cardinal Egan of New York, Cardinal O'Brien of Edinburgh (Scotland), Dublin's Archbishop Martin, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor of Westminster — the highest Catholic clergyman in England and Wales — have been among those reported to have used the honorific for John Paul II.

Historian Robert Louis Wilken, writing in Catholic periodical Commonweal in 2003, "Greatness is as mysterious as it is elusive," alluding to the ambiguity of the criteria used in applying the title.

For instance, some figures — such as theologian St. Thomas Aquinas or the apostle Peter, the first pope — despite their wide influence in church history, have not been granted the honorific by historians or Catholic tradition, while others relatively unknown today were indeed accorded it.

Newspapers in Italy, the United States, and throughout the globe have featured the acclamation "Great" for the deceased pontiff. Catholic-oriented websites and online forums, as well, abound with the title.

The Holy See's official paper, L’Osservatore Romano, also echoed the "Great" appellation.

Moreover, a Vatican homily text for Sunday, 3 April, contained a reference to the title. Though the honorific was ultimately not used during the homily's delivery by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Secretary of State until John Paul II's death, it is maintained that Vatican documents can be considered official even when not read aloud.