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"Great" Popes: When a Pope Should Be & Should Not Be Called Great


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"Great" Popes: When a Pope Should Be & Should Not Be Called Great

By C.O.

Summary: What makes a pope "great". What doesn't.

Keywords: Pope, Supreme Pontiff, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Papal Greatness, Standards for Greatness, Pontificate, Papacy, What Makes a Pope Great?, Was Pope John Paul II Great?

I have posted on this matter before but I would like to expound a bit on this topic and post it as an article. My hope is that it may draw persons to discussion and in some way be helpful to others.

In the 2,000 year history of the Church, only two popes have been "officially" surnamed "the Great".+ These two are Pope St. Gregory the Great and Pope St. Leo the Great.

Pope St. Leo the Great defended papal primacy and personally stopped Attila the Hun. Pope St. Gregory the Great is associated with codifying the incomparable Roman Canon and with the precious musical treasure, Gregorian chant. He also masterfully defended Church teachings and defended papal primacy. Neither of these popes would tolerate sin or heresy. Both strongly defended the Church and her teachings.

In recent times, numerous people have been calling for labeling a third pope "great". Rather than simply accept this at face value, I believe it should be discussed.

Should a pope be labeled "great" because he might have an appearance of holiness? Of course not. There have been holy popes in the past who were bad popes. A holy man does not necessarily make a good pope.

Should a pope be labeled "great" because he is likeable? Certainly not. That is no criteria whatsoever for such an important label as "great". Satan himself could present himself in a likeable manner if it would further his agenda. Sometimes one must be unlikable to be truly great.

Should a pope be labeled "great" because he engaged in novelties? Most definitely not. In fact, it is the pope's job to preserve what is handed on to him, not to spread novelties.

Should a pope be labeled "great" because he traveled a lot? Of course not. Traveling a lot does not automatically make you a good pope. Especially when your time may have been better spent addressing the many problems in the Church that you alone could have fixed.

Should a pope be labeled "great" because he wrote voluminously? Of course not. St. Peter himself wrote hardly anything that we know of. Isn't it rather more important what was written than how much? Were the documents traditional, succinct, understandable, and God-centered or were they often novel, wordy, confusing, and man-centered?

Should a pope be labeled "great" merely because he held to Church teachings in basic, obvious matters such as abortion and euthanasia? Of course not, this is to be expected. We have Christ's promise of infallibility. Meeting a bare minimum standard certainly does not qualify one to be regarded as "great".

Should a pope be labeled "great" because the world likes him? Certainly not. If anything, this works to his disfavor. We know we are doing good *not* when the world likes us but when the world crucifies us as it did to our Head, Christ. As Jesus says: Mt. 10:22 - You will be hated by all because of my name; Lk. 6:22 - Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man; Jn. 15:19 - If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.

So, what evidence supports or contradicts a label of "great" for a pope? Shouldn't we ask questions such as...

* Did Catholics become more holy under his papacy? Or did they become practically indistinguishable from non-Catholics?

* Did Catholics learn their faith better under his papacy? Or did they become more confused & unorthodox?

* Was God better served under his papacy? Or did irreverence, profanation and sacrilege increase during his tenure?

* Were souls bettered while he was at the helm? Were more souls saved or lost? Were confessions increased or decreased?

* Was society bettered? Were there fewer sins? Were there less - or more - murders, suicides, adultery, abortion, contraception... under his watch?

* How are the signs of health in the Church? Have they improved or reached "crisis" proportions?

* Were false apparitions tolerated or stopped?

* Were protestant errors rejected or embraced and propagated?

* Was religious indifferentism curbed or increased?

* Was dissent stopped or tolerated and furthered?

* Was clerical abuse rare or 'rampant'?

* Was Eucharistic abuse rare or has it become so frequent that many Catholics no longer even know what an abuse is?

* Has belief in the Real Presence increased or do only a minority of Catholics now believe in this basic tenet of the Catholic faith? - A tenet so important that St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:29-30: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.

* Did the pope hold fast to traditional practices or surrender to the will of liberals in matters such as Communion in hand, 'lay ministers', female altar boys, etc.?

* Have vocations increased or are they more rare - even reaching "crisis" proportions?

* Are most Catholics orthodox or would our age be better characterized as a 'mass apostasy'?

* Were heterodox clergy removed from their offices or named to more important posts?

* Were scandal-plagued prelates removed or 'promoted'?

* Was Catholic tradition promoted or at best barely tolerated?

* Were annulments decreased or have they reached crisis proportions?

* Were Catholics disciplined as St. Paul insists we should be (Heb. 12:8) or allowed to "run free"?

* Were traditional & orthodox teachings promoted and furthered or was new, confusing & questionable theology introduced in its place?

* Did the supreme pontiff reject or engage in scandalous diplomatic or ecumenical efforts? (e.g. Assisi, kissing the Koran)

* Was the Church praised & furthered or debased & apologized for?

* Were beloved traditional devotions such as the Way of the Cross and the Holy Rosary respected and fostered or treated as changeable objects, even subjected to criticism?

* Was papal primacy asserted and defended or rather ignored and weakened?

* Have numerous Catholics returned to the Church or have they fallen away in droves?

* Have canonizations under the pontificate strengthened sainthood or have they occurred so frequently as to risk casting doubt on their value?

* Has Catholic education been improved or become a known source of scandal for its heterodox teachings?

* Have youngsters been lifted up or rather has the Church been lowered to their level (e.g. Children's Masses, incorporating rock music into sacred events, etc.)?

* Are Catholics now more obedient or less obedient?

* Are Catholics now more likely to affect society or be affected by it?

* Did the pope - particularly one who took the Oath Against Modernism - fight Modernism or help it spread?

* Are our churches more beautiful than ever or have they been stripped of their beauty and been made egalitarian?

* Are we opening new Catholic schools or closing existing Catholic schools?

* Are priests & nuns known for their holiness and orthodoxy or have many become worldly and dissenting?

* Are Catholics more likely to be devoted to the Blessed Virgin or less likely? (A true and all-encompassing devotion, not a fleeting feeling)

* Do Catholics cling to tradition or are they more likely to "chase after every novelty" (e.g. new devotions, movements, etc.)?

* Have we "evangelized the world" or allowed pagans, Jews, protestants, schismatics, etc. to remain where they are - and even praised them and given them honor?

* Do Catholics show more respect for sacred things or have they lost all regard for the sacred - even regularly putting Holy Communion in their bare, unwashed hands without giving this practice so much as a thought?

* Have Catholics become more unified or are there almost "as many types of Catholics as there are persons"?

* Are Catholics better educated in their faith or have they become ignorant of even the most basic tenets of it?

* Have Catholics become more submissive to the Church or are they more likely to have a 'spirit of independence'?

* Have theologians who spurn Church teaching been publicly rebuked or publicly praised?

* Has fear of the Lord - the beginning of wisdom according to Ps. 111:10, Prov. 9:10, etc. - increased or nearly disappeared?

* Has zeal for souls increased or is there rather more concern about earthly matters?

* Have papal statements scandalized Catholics due to their apparent contempt for Church teachings or for her past, or even for what they omit (e.g. newfound contempt for the death penalty, a supposed new 'hope' for salvation of unbaptized infants, an apparent 'excuse' for those who commit suicide, talk about sharing churches with heretics, the giving of praise to Luther, the giving of sacred Catholic objects to heretics & schismatics, the scandalous use of false titles with respect to those outside the Church, the failure to use term "mortal sin", etc.)

* Has the most holy event on earth, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass - the very re-presentation of Calvary - been further solemnized or has it become, for many, "religious entertainment" (at best) and scandalous and/or invalid (at worst)?

All in all, which important area in the Church has actually improved under the third pope's reign, based on the constant teachings of the Church? Is there one important area that can be objectively - and without a counterbalance - proven as significantly improved? I do not think so. If such is the case how can one even imagine that such a pope should be called "the great"?

While it is true that a pope can't be personally blamed for everything that occurs during his reign, he does bear some responsibility. The pope is the supreme head of the Church with the authority to make changes. In fact, it is his job to do so. If he does not do his job, he becomes derelict in his duties, and is certainly not behaving "greatly".

In a similar vein, if you were charged with running a company and were given full authority to back up that responsibility, would you be called "great" if the company "fell to pieces" under your watch? Would you be called "great" if every single sign of health in the company deteriorated - many into a crisis situation - while you were in charge and had full authority to correct the problem? What if you not only failed to take action when it was clear there were problems, but actually furthered some of them by your own behavior? In such a situation, rather than be hailed as "great", wouldn't you be condemned & probably fired? And do you actually think it would make a difference to the owner if you were really friendly & likeable? Wouldn't they prefer you to be less likeable & friendly if that would have resulted in a better, healthier company? You certainly couldn't get away with blaming the other employees for the problems considering that you had the full authority - and the RESPONSIBILITY - to make all necessary changes and correct the problems. You were the "top dog" as the expression goes.

In the past, popes "single-handedly" kept things in line (for example, consider the case of Pope St. Pius X and his "single handedly" driving modernism underground). Of course these popes didn't really do it all on their own, but they did keep on top of things and made changes when necessary. They wouldn't tolerate problems and certainly knew how to surround themselves with those who could be trusted. If someone failed to do their job, they exercised their authority swiftly and resolved the problem. The person was not left to continue harming the Church and souls. At least, that's how good popes of the past handled things - and they generally had much shorter pontificates and lacked modern communications yet still managed to accomplish so much. Unfortunately, moderns seem to behave as if kindness alone will solve everything. As if there were no Fall of Man. As if the exercise of authority was somehow anathema. As if there were no eternal consequences.

In any event, should one compare the extraordinary pontificates of the Great Popes Leo & Gregory with a papacy falling short as to the points indicated above, any reasonable person should clearly see that there is a world of difference. In one case we have rampant sin, loss of faith, scandals, etc. and on the other hand the Church was elevated & enjoyed great & long-lasting benefits. All three popes had equal authority. All three popes battled human nature. Two popes put up a mighty fight and enjoyed wonderful success. One was kind, but his kindness was unable to stop - and may even have furthered - the backsliding which occurred during his papacy. How can it possibly be said that all three were "great" popes? If a father is kind when he should be severe, who would praise him? Is it really kind to allow your children to be hit by a bus because you don't want to "yell at them" to get out of the street? Would behavior like that make you a "great" or a bad father?

Ultimately, if a pope is going to be called "the Great" there must be a genuine, objective reason. Such a title must not be handed out lightly and the conferral of it must not be based on emotion or feelings. There MUST BE facts - genuine truths & corroborating statistics - that will stand the test of time to back this up. And conferral of such a singular distinction cannot be made for light matters, but must be made because God was better served and souls were better served - in an *extraordinary* way - that a pope is called "great", certainly not merely because a pope made people "feel good" or was "nice", "cheerful" or "friendly".

Finally, I do not wish to be disrespectful. However, I must say that it seems to me that it's not the type of pope described above who deserves to be called "great", but rather the pope who somehow manages to clean up the messes left behind after such a pope who will be the one deserving of the title "great", even if he's not very friendly.

Signature ImageSignature: C.O.

+ Also, a third pope, St. Nicholas, is often called "great" 

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