I have to admit to something of a bias here: for me, as for many others of my generation, John Paul II was the Pope. His twenty-six years as Bishop of Rome may not be that much in the broad sweep of history, but it's a long time from the perspective of an individual's life. Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope shortly after my third birthday, and died in my thirtieth year. That means I cannot remember any Pope before him, and that he was Pope all the way through my time at school and university and for my five years of initial formation as a friar. Always there in the background, his influence on my Catholic upbringing and development was considerable. He more or less defined what it was to be Pope, and therefore also contributed hugely to my understanding of what it is to be Catholic.
Even from a more objective viewpoint, however, I do believe that Blessed John Paul II deserves to be known as 'the Great'. He did, in fact, redefine the role of the Papacy – bringing it onto an international stage as never before, visiting countries all over the world to make the focus of Catholic unity and identity a more immediate experience for God's people. His other, more specific contributions to the Church are too numerous for me to list here. But of course he'll be remembered – and remembered with gratitude – in the wider world most of all for his role in the downfall of European Communism.
Something of the greatness of the man was brought home to me afresh by watching the film Karol: the man who became Pope (I warmly recommend it). It was truly awe-inspiring to see how his priestly vocation emerged amongst the horrors of the Nazi occupation, and then to see him, first as a priest and then as a bishop, combating with great love and courage the Communist oppression.
Yet when I reflected on my feelings after the film, I found that I was not only deeply impressed – I was also somewhat intimidated. My response to other comparable films, such as those dramatising the lives of St. Pio and St. Faustina, was to feel inspired. But, as I say, watching this version of Karol Wojtyla's pre-Papal life was more intimidating. I realised that it's because he's so great, with so many gifts, that I just couldn't imagine emulating him.
Greatness, however, is not the same as blessedness. Karol Wojtyla could have been great without being blessed, and he could have been blessed without being great. And the kind of greatness that we're talking about is not given to all. As George Weigel, his biographer, points out, "very few of us will enjoy the range of intellectual, spiritual, literary, athletic, and linguistic gifts that God gave Karol Wojtyla." But, as he goes on to say, "all of us share with him the possibility of being radically converted Christian disciples" – that is, all of us can attain to blessedness.Almost by definition, greatness is not open to all, for 'Great' is a relative term – if everyone was 'Great' the word would be meaningless. But blessedness is open to all, for heaven is not limited in size, and no matter how many Blesseds and Saints there are, there's always room for more.