A Measure of Greatness

The papacy of John Paul II: two assessments





Robert Louis Wilken


On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the election of John Paul II as pope, I am reminded of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem, “I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great.” In it Spender speaks of those “Whose lovely ambition / Was that their lips, still touched with fire, / Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.” Greatness, like holiness, is a rare and precious thing. In the course of most human lifetimes there will have lived a great man or woman, or several, but few can say they lived when someone “truly great” sojourned among us. Because our lives have intersected with the life of John Paul II, we are among those few. He belongs in the company of “those who in their lives fought for life, / Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center. / Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun, / And left the vivid air signed with their honor.” Greatness is never measured by a single standard; it is unique, tailored to the singularity of each person. In the long history of the papacy there have been only two popes who earned the title “great,” Leo in the fifth century and Gregory at the end of the sixth century. They were two quite different persons, and it is not at all clear why they rather than, say, Nicholas...

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About the Author

Susan A. Ross is associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago. Her most recent book is Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (Continuum).