There are people who don’t believe in great men. That is, they don’t believe that a man can be “great” in any sense that would command the attention and respect of others. Such a person, upon hearing a man called “great,” immediately takes exception. He tends to regard it as a personal insult.
But there are and have been great men: men whose deeds have shaped nations and history. Oftentimes, what made them great was their “voice:” their ability to inspire and lead great numbers of others in noble causes. In other cases, what made a man great was his ability to cause thousands or millions to go forth and slaughter as he commanded. “Great” is not synonymous with “good.”
Today, Catholics celebrate the life of a great man, a man whose life and words inspired millions worldwide and, in fact, were central to the final defeat of the Soviet Union and its dominance of Eastern Europe. That man was born in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. His birth name was Karol Józef Wojtyła. Early in life he proved to be a prodigy both of the mind and the body. Yet his was not an easy youth. By age twenty all the other members of his nuclear family had died. Then came the German occupation of Poland, the horrors that it brought, and the sense, which flowered during the war, that his life should be put to more than mere survival. In 1946 he was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church.
He would eventually be known to the world as Pope John Paul II. Today Catholics remember him as Pope John Paul II the Great, one of only four popes to be awarded the honorific.
John Paul II died in 2005, after a papacy of twenty-seven years, the second longest in Church history. He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2014, and is today a recognized saint. October 22 is his feast day. Historians consider him to be an essential member of a trio whose words, deeds, and policies shaped the great events of their era. The other two are Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
The century behind us was tumultuous and more. But tumult is inseparable from progress. John Paul II, by his teachings, his travels, and his gentle administration of a Church that had known much conflict and even more opposition from the forces of darkness, was responsible for more progress – spiritual and secular – than any other man of his time. To be remembered as “the Great” is an honor he richly deserved.
May God hold you close, Karol Józef Wojtyła, teacher, world traveler, Supreme Pontiff, and saint.
From the perspective of this evangelical Protestant, the Catholic Church would have been better off if Wojtyla’s predecessor had not been murdered a month into his term.