Since the death of our beloved Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, many have been hailing him as “Pope John Paul II, the Great.” Three Popes have had the title, “the great,” appended to their name: Pope St. Leo I (440-461), Pope St. Nicholas I (858-867), and Pope St. Gregory I.(590-604). However, never has the Church officially pronounced these popes as “great”; rather, they have been identified as great by both popular acclamation at the time of their deaths and by history itself.
Pope St. Leo the Great (papacy, 440-61) was born in Rome in the early 400s. As an acolyte, he was sent to Africa where he met St. Augustine, and later served as a deacon for both Pope Celestine I and Pope Sixtus III. Subsequently, he was elected to succeed Pope Sixtus III and was consecrated on September 29, 440. His papacy was truly marked by greatness: He tirelessly preached against the heresies of Manichaeanism, Pelagianism, Priscillianism, and Nestorianism. In particular, he fought against the heresy of Eutyches, who like Nestorius, denied the hypostatic union, i.e. the union of the divine and human natures in the one divine person of our Lord Jesus Christ. He issued his famous Tome, which condemned Eutyches and clearly taught the mystery of the incarnation. To settle the matter, he convoked the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at which his Tome was read and the attending bishops shouted in response, “That is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Apostles; we all believe this; the orthodox believe this, anathema to him who believes otherwise. Peter has spoken through Leo.” The Council of Chalcedon thereby defined that “the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”
Pope St. Leo was also a courageous leader. In 452, he met Attila the Hun, known as “The Scourge of God,” and succeeded in saving Rome from being sacked. Tradition holds that at the meeting, Attila saw both St. Peter and St. Paul wielding swords above St. Leo, and this ominous threat motivated Attila to retreat. For this reason, Pope St. Leo was called “The Shield of God.” Unfortunately, he did not have the same luck three years later with the Vandal Genseric.
Pope St. Leo Pope also suppressed surviving pagan festivals and closed the remaining pagan temples. He sent missionaries to Africa, which was now ravaged by the barbarians. He instituted many reforms, including impressing strict discipline on the bishops. Although he spoke of the papacy as “a burden to shudder at,” Pope St. Leo met the challenge with great fidelity and self-sacrifice. In a time of decline of the Roman Empire, Pope St. Leo made the papacy a strong central authority which was recognized as a source of stability and wisdom. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1754. Truly, Pope St. Leo deserved the title, “the great.”
The next Pope called “the great” is Pope St. Gregory (540 – 604). He was born to a wealthy Roman family and received a classical education. He was raised in a devout and holy Christian family: his mother, Sylvia, was honored as a saint. Later, he became the Prefect of Rome. During the Lombard invasion in 571, he cared for the numerous refugees who flooded the city.
After his parents died, St. Gregory became very wealthy, inheriting his parents estate in Rome and six Sicilian estates. However, in 574, three Benedictine monk friends influenced him to abandon the world and enter religious life. St. Gregory became a Benedictine, having turned his parents’ home into a monastery, which was named St. Andrew’s. He sold his other estates to found monasteries and give relief to the poor. Because of his outstanding abilities, he was recruited for papal service, first as one of the Pope Pelagius II’s deacons (578) and then as the papal nuncio to the Byzantine Court (579-85). He then returned to his monastery, becoming the abbot of St. Andrew’s.
In 590, he was elected and consecrated Pope on September 3. His pontificate was marked by greatness: He restored clerical discipline, removing unworthy bishops and priests from office. He protected the Jews from unjust coercion. He fed those who suffered from famine and ransomed those captured by barbarians. He negotiated peace treaties with the barbarian invaders, and converted many of them. He sponsored many missionaries, including St. Augustine of Canterbury, whom he sent to England; St. Columban, who evangelized the Franks; and St. Leander who converted the Spanish Visigoths who were still Arian.
St. Gregory was also a great teacher. In his Liber regulae pastoralis, he described the duties of bishops, and this work remains necessary spiritual reading for any bishop. He recorded the lives of many of the saints in his Dialogues. Numerous sermons and letters of his are still extant. He revitalized the Mass, and is credited with instituting what is commonly called “Gregorian Chant.” The offering of thirty successive Masses upon the death of a person also bears his name, “Gregorian Masses.”
Pope St. Gregory is credited with being the founder of the Medieval Papacy. Despite his many accomplishments and abilities, he was a humble man. He took as his official title, “Servant of the Servants of God,” the official title of the Pope to this day. He too is a Doctor of the Church, and is considered the last of the Western Church Fathers.
The last of the “greats” is Pope St. Nicholas, who was born around 820 in Rome. His father was an official in the papal administration. He was educated at the Lateran, served in the papal administration of Pope Sergius II, was ordained a deacon by Pope Leo IV, and was a trusted advisor to Pope Benedict III.
Upon Pope Benedict III’s death, Nicholas was elected Pope on April 22, 858. He soon became known for his charity and justice. For instance, he denounced King Lothair II of Lorraine for attempting to cast aside his legitimate wife to marry his mistress; not only did Pope St. Benedict depose the Archbishops of Cologne and Trier who permitted the illicit marriage, he withstood the pressures of Lothair’s father, Emperor Louis II acquiesce. When the powerful Archbishop of Rheims, Hincmar, wrongfully deposed Bishop Rothad of Soissons, Pope St. Nicholas ordered him reinstated. Twice he excommunicated Archbishop John of Ravenna for abusing his office. Pope St. Nicholas also withstood the attempts of both the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperor to encroach upon the rights of the papacy. He also sponsored missionary work to Scandinavia under the leadership of St. Ansgar, and to Bulgaria.
During his pontificate, he preserved the prestige and authority of the papacy at a time when secular rulers were not only gaining power but also wanting to control the Church. He was a champion of the poor, a patron of the arts, a reformer of clergy and laity alike. In all, he exercised his office with the highest personal integrity. He died on November 13, 867.
When one considers the great work of these three Popes, one immediately understands why they were popularly called “the great.” They were great in their example of holiness as witnessed in their preaching, teaching, evangelization, and leadership, especially in times of persecution and hardship. They were genuine servants of the Lord and His Church.
The same is true for our beloved Pope John Paul II. As the chief teacher of the faith and guided by the Holy Spirit, he issued the New Catechism, the revised Code of Canon Law, and the revised Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches; he wrote 39 major teachings covering the whole spectrum of doctrine, morals, and spirituality; and he gave countless other addresses and speeches. Pope John Paul II emphasized the universal call to holiness and thereby the sacramental life which begins at baptism: He who went to weekly confession urged others to open themselves to the infinite mercy of God in the Sacrament of Penance. In his last encyclical on the Holy Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he encouraged devotion to our Lord truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and the reverential offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. He reminded the faithful that through the Holy Eucharist Christ is not just with us, Christ is in us being truly present. The Holy Father was a great defender of Christian morality: He emphasized the sanctity of life from conception until natural death, the dignity of the person, and the sacredness of marriage and marital love. He had the courage and fidelity never to distort the Word of God to conform to the selfish whims of society, but challenged each person to conform to the Word of God. As the successor of St. Peter, he sought unity in the body of the Church, making 104 pastoral visits outside of Italy. He canonized 482 saints and beatified 1, 342 blesseds, knowing we need examples of holiness to inspire us. The best example of course is the Blessed Mother whom he mentioned at the close of each encyclical and to whom he entrusted his life, having the motto, Totus tuus (All Yours). Because of she is the model disciple who leads others to Christ, he always encouraged the faithful to pray the Rosary. In his life, he taught us how to live and die with Jesus.
Before Pope John Paul II’s death, Cardinal Meisner of Cologne, Germany, was asked, How do you think history will judge him: John Paul the Great, John Paul the Instinctive, John Paul the Charismatic, John Paul the Conservative?” He answered, “Like Leo and Gregory, John Paul ‘the Great.” On several occasions, Pope Benedict XVI has referred to him as “The Great Pope John Paul II.” One can rightfully call him, Pope John Paul II, the Great.