March 31, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     Thomas Jefferson was a great man, but not 
necessarily a great president. In the same way, I'm not 
sure that John Paul II has been a great pope; but I have 
no doubt that he is a very great man. He's still proving 

     Writing of Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton remarked 
that the term "great man" is indefinable, but not vague: 
"Whatever the word 'great' means, Dickens was what it 
means." We can try to describe the great man, but our 
praise always seems inadequate.

     Most of us had never heard of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla 
when he suddenly became, in 1978, the first non-Italian 
pope in several centuries. This vigorous Pole had endured 
German and Soviet oppression of his country, and the 
world thrilled at his courage as he inspired Poland's 
Solidarity movement to defy Communism's tyranny. The 
ruthless regime was still murdering priests, but it 
turned out to be surprising fragile against an unarmed 
populace that had had enough. In a few years, European 
Communism was dead. It had proved no match for John 
Paul's authoritative personality.

     I saw him in person once, in a large private 
audience at the Vatican in 1982, a year after he was 
shot. I never saw a man of such commanding presence. Even 
in relaxation, he appeared to have been born to rule St. 

     Today this youthful, energetic pope has become a 
frail old man, hardly able to speak, yet facing death 
with the same inspiring courage he showed against 
Communism. Can it be mere coincidence that he had a 
feeding tube inserted at the same time a feeding tube was 
being removed from Terri Schiavo?

     Yet he's the same man he always was. A hero to the 
West, he has nevetheless devoted much of his papacy to a 
severe critique of the modern West, chiefly its 
materialism and its "culture of death." He has risked his 
great popularity to reiterate Catholic teaching against 
abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. He has also 
upheld Catholic dogma and stood firmly against ordaining 
women as priests; his bitterest opponents have always 
been liberal Catholics. He has viewed America's recent 
wars sternly.

     Few popes have ever rivaled John Paul II in the 
dramatic gesture. Surely his most dramatic was his 1983 
visit to Mehmet Ali Agca, the assassin who had shot him 
in 1981. He went to Agca's prison cell to forgive him. 
(The Pope's personal physician told me the bullet had 
missed a vital artery by a millimeter; if it had struck 
that artery, there would have been no hope of saving 

     And of course John Paul is the most widely traveled 
pope of all time, greeting huge adoring crowds around the 
world until he was too feeble to do so anymore. On his 
first visit to Washington, he waved to a little girl in 
the front row of the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue -- my 

     Nor can we forget John Paul the avid skier. He did 
all sorts of things popes weren't expected to do, with a 
joie de vivre not usually associated with the papacy. He 
has also written books of philosophy and poetry and made 
recordings. You never knew what this surprising pope was 
going to do next. He has also canonized more saints and 
elevated more cardinals than any previous pope.

     Still, orthodox Catholics ask whether his papacy has 
been a success. He seems to have retained a naive Sixties 
faith in ecumenical "dialogue," however fruitless it 
turned out to be. The maladies that have infected the 
Church since the Second Vatican Council (at which he was 
an enthusiastic participant) haven't been remedied -- 
liturgical corruption, low Mass attendance, poor Catholic 
education, errant bishops, heretical theologians.

     And one of the worst scandals in Catholic history 
erupted on his watch: the revelation that homosexual 
priests had been abusing boys. This was a natural result 
of the homosexual domination of American (and possibly 
other) Catholic seminaries that had been increasing since 
the 1960s, well before John Paul's papacy; but he seemed 
to have had no clue that it was going on and hardly to 
have believed it when he learned. That doesn't speak well 
for his supervision.

     But all in all, no man of our time has even begun to 
rival his stature. Whatever "great" means, John Paul II 
is what it means.


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