When a Pope Should Be & Should Not Be Called Great
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
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
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
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
* 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?
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,
female altar boys, etc.?
* Have vocations increased or are they more rare - even reaching
* 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
* 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
* 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
* 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
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
* 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
* 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
* 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
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
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
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
+ Also, a third pope,
St. Nicholas, is often called "great"
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