Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but not necessarily a great president. In the same way, I’m not sure that John Paul II has been a great pope; but I have no doubt that he is a very great man. He’s still proving it.
Writing of Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton remarked that the term great man is indefinable, but not vague: “Whatever the word ‘great’ means, Dickens was what it means.” We can try to describe the great man, but our praise always seems inadequate.
Most of us had never heard of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla when he suddenly became, in 1978, the first non-Italian pope in several centuries. This vigorous Pole had endured German and Soviet oppression of his country, and the world thrilled at his courage as he inspired Poland’s Solidarity movement to defy Communism’s tyranny. The ruthless regime was still murdering priests, but it turned out to be surprising fragile against an unarmed populace that had had enough. In a few years, European Communism was dead. It had proved no match for John Paul’s authoritative personality.
I saw him in person once, in a large private audience at the Vatican in 1982, a year after he was shot. I never saw a man of such commanding presence. Even in relaxation, he appeared to have been born to rule St. Peter’s.
Today this youthful, energetic pope has become a frail old man, hardly able to speak, yet facing death with the same inspiring courage he showed against Communism. Can it be mere coincidence that he had a feeding tube inserted at the same time a feeding tube was being removed from Terri Schiavo?
Yet he’s the same man he always was. A hero to the West, he has nevetheless devoted much of his papacy to a severe critique of the modern West, chiefly its materialism and its “culture of death.” He has risked his great popularity to reiterate Catholic teaching against abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. He has also upheld Catholic dogma and stood firmly against ordaining women as priests; his bitterest opponents have always been liberal Catholics. He has viewed America’s recent wars sternly.
Few popes have ever rivaled John Paul II in the dramatic gesture. Surely his most dramatic was his 1983 visit to Mehmet Ali Agca, the assassin who had shot him in 1981. He went to Agca’s prison cell to forgive him. (The Pope’s personal physician told me the bullet had missed a vital artery by a millimeter; if it had struck that artery, there would have been no hope of saving him.)
And of course John Paul is the most widely traveled pope of all time, greeting huge adoring crowds around the world until he was too feeble to do so anymore. On his first visit to Washington, he waved to a little girl in the front row of the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue — my daughter.
Nor can we forget John Paul the avid skier. He did all sorts of things popes weren’t expected to do, with a joie de vivre not usually associated with the papacy. He has also written books of philosophy and poetry and made recordings. You never knew what this surprising pope was going to do next. He has also canonized more saints and elevated more cardinals than any previous pope.
Still, orthodox Catholics ask whether his papacy has been a success. He seems to have retained a naive Sixties faith in ecumenical “dialogue,” however fruitless it turned out to be. The maladies that have infected the Church since the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an enthusiastic participant) haven’t been remedied — liturgical corruption, low Mass attendance, poor Catholic education, errant bishops, heretical theologians.
And one of the worst scandals in Catholic history erupted on his watch: the revelation that homosexual priests had been abusing boys. This was a natural result of the homosexual domination of American (and possibly other) Catholic seminaries that had been increasing since the 1960s, well before John Paul’s papacy; but he seemed to have had no clue that it was going on and hardly to have believed it when he learned. That doesn’t speak well for his supervision.
But all in all, no man of our time has even begun to rival his stature. Whatever great means, John Paul II is what it means.