Followers, clergy tacking on `Great' to the pope's name

Unofficial designation, given to three others, requires popular use

The World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 08, 2005|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

ROME - From the faithful in the streets to homilies at the Vatican, an unofficial change is under way: Pope John Paul II is becoming John Paul the Great.

The moniker "Great" was in the written text of Cardinal Angelo Sodano's homily at a St. Peter's Mass on Sunday. The Italian press is employing it at will. The lexicon of mourners who are gathering here in an unprecedented crush is thick with it.

"The title has caught on," said Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia. "That's what we call him, John Paul the Great."

Popular affirmation

In the Catholic Church, the term is more than a mere compliment.

It is a title widely bestowed on just three previous popes, all of whom reigned more than a 1,000 years ago.

But unlike the arduous process for sainthood, there is no official procedure or ceremony en route to Greatness. It is at once simpler and much more difficult.

It needs popular affirmation.

"The examples from antiquity happened by use and the pen of subsequent ecclesiastical writers," said Brother Charles Hilken, a history professor at St. Mary's College of California.

Three other popes

Pope Leo I, 440-461, established that the authority of the papacy, transcending the importance of its position beyond the individual pontiff. He twice saved Rome from devastation by challenging invaders, including Attila the Hun.

Pope Gregory I, 590-604, defended Rome's primacy and sent food out daily to the poor in the streets. Pope Nicholas I, 858-867, fended off voracious Roman imperial influence.

Scholars say there have been so few - and it even remains a debate among some writers whether Nicholas is truly a Great - because the title has no official sanction.

The vox populi's commitment to the term must endure.

`John Paul joins them'

In a time when titles are fast and fickle - the wedding of the century dissolved, the trial of the century disintegrated into tawdrier imitations - it is hard to know when spectacular events are more than a spectacle.

But for many of those who have turned the streets around Vatican City into cobblestone beds this week, history is evident. It is, too, for others far from the pageantry of today's farewell.

"Before Karol Wojtyla , there were other popes called `the Great' - Gregory, Leo and Nicholas. Now, John Paul joins them. John Paul the Great," read the conclusion of an editorial in the Wednesday edition of The Warsaw Voice.

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