Pope John Paul the Great?

Roundup: Talking About History

Paul Vitello, Carol Eisenberg and Letta Tayler, in Newsday (4-4-05):

The signs of the campaign were already abundant, one day after the pontiff's death.

Pope John Paul II, "The Great," banners and T-shirts read.

Even before the pope is buried, the quest is under way to make him not only a saint but also a "magnus," or great - a title bestowed by historians only twice in the papacy's 2,000-year history. The fledgling drive is stirring controversy in a Roman Catholic Church already divided over the late pope's orthodox views and what critics saw as his autocratic style.

Several prominent Roman Catholic intellectuals are waving the magnus banner. They include Vatican insider Vittorio Messori, who glowed over the prospect in a column published Saturday in the respected Italian daily Corriere della Sera - just hours before the pope's death - titled "Already a Saint."

"It is with lucidity and full awareness that I dare say it: the title of Magnus seems truly appropriate," Messori opined.

On a state-run Rai television news channel yesterday, a digital banner on a popular talk-show, "Porta a Porta" (Door to Door), referred to "John Paul II il Grande."

The prepared text for a homily delivered yesterday at St. Peter's by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, also referred to "John Paul the Great." However, Sodano omitted "the Great" when he delivered the sermon, possibly because of the issue's contentiousness.

The only two popes to bear that title are Leo I, whose papacy lasted from 440-446, and Gregory I, 590-604. The sobriquet has no official value; historians posthumously bestowed it on the two pontiffs, whose reputations endured the vicissitudes of time.

That's one reason critics find the current campaign unseemly.

"It's part of an effort to legitimize all of the most conservative aspects of his pontificate and to help ensure the election of a kindred spirit as his successor," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a papal historian at the University of Notre Dame.

Branding the pope "grand" also creates practical complications, according to Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest who edits the Catholic weekly America.

"Does this mean John Paul I was 'The Lesser'?" Reese asked rhetorically. "Or what happens if the next pope decides to call himself John Paul III? Will we refer to him as John Paul 'The Less'?"

Even a few of John Paul II's boosters are dubious.

The magnus title helped distinguish Leo I from seven other papal Leos and Gregory I from 15 namesakes, noted the Rev. John Paul Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. John Paul II doesn't need that assistance because his predecessor, John Paul I, who died after just 33 days in office, "didn't really live long enough to register," Wauck said.

A worthier campaign, in Wauck's view, is elevating John Paul II to sainthood - a title also enjoyed by Greats Leo and Gregory, along with 76 other popes. That process also appears to be in the making.

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