John Paul II: A Pope called “The Great”

A hundred years after Karol Wojtylaʼs birth

by cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti

Only two Pontiffs have been called “The Great” in the Church history: Leo I and Gregory I. To these towering personages of the past we can nowadays add a Pope who is our contemporary, John Paul II.

Our Holy Father Franciscus, celebrating the Mass in memory of his birth in St. Peterʼs Basilica on May 18, 2020, said that “the Lord visited His people. He sent a man; he prepared him to be a bishop and lead the Church.” There surely is a strong relationship between Karol Wojtyla and the history of the 20th century – an intersection of dates, meetings, prophecies, and fundamental turning points.

In 1977, for example, Jean Delumeau published a book whose significant title was Le christianisme va-t-il mourir?, “Is Christianity about to die?” In that period, it did seem that the process of secularization was irreversible, that the presence of the Church in the society had become residual, and that the crisis internal to the established Church – a drastic reduction in the number of religious vocations, more and more men leaving the priesthood, as well as less and less people attending the Holy Mass – has now come to a tragic point.

Not much time later, however, in October 1978, the then Archbishop of Kraków was elected Pope, and history took a different direction. In a time span of 26 years, that Pontiff “coming from afar” radically changed the perspectives on the Church and Christianity.

His unexpected election proved a true foray of the Holy Spirit into the life of humankind; and his long pontificate would provide an answer to the deep crisis which had hit the Church all over the world. Many scholars also stressed the political side of Wojtylaʼs papacy. By using the sole weapons of faith, in fact, he contributed to the fall of the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and in the very Soviet Union.

Like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, who put a stop to the destructions brought about by Huns and Lombards, John Paul II too obstructed the path to communism without shedding blood.

The importance of his papacy cannot be reduced to its political dimension, though. Such a univocal interpretation would run the risk of giving a very partial and ideological view on Wojtylaʼs papacy.

John Paul IIʼs greatness lies, rather, in having been able to lead the Church into the Third Millennium by overcoming the storms of history, while giving a heroic witness to Christianity and paving the way to the 21st century. As a matter of fact, the Polish Pope marked a change of Era.

All the themes that emerged during his pontificate remain nowadays at the basis of Christian life. Let us think, for example, to the central role he assigned to Mercy – a subject then developed by Pope Francis in an original way – or the dignity of the human being as saved by Christ, the relationship between science and faith, or, last but not least, the importance of peace and the “Spirit of Assisi.”

A hundred years after his birth, we can well say that John Paul II was a man of God, a man of prayer, as well as a great preacher of the Gospel. In a concise phrase, we could say that he was a modern Apostle of All Peoples.

An apostle who witnessed the beauty of the Gospel, supported a culture of life, and defended the freedom of peoples. I donʼt know if all this is enough in order to define this Pope “The Great.” Undoubtedly, anyway, we cannot but think about it.

(translation by Dario Rivarossa)