Saturday, October 13, 2007

Greatness and History

I was talking to a friend the other day about the current trend among certain faithful Catholics to refer to the late Pope John Paul II as "John Paul the Great." There is even a "John Paul the Great University" that opened its doors this fall. It seems like an unwise trend to me and one characteristic of the narcissism of our society to pronounce on a matter better left to posterity.

Please don't get be wrong. I admire the late pontiff as much as anyone. Playing such a large role in bringing down communism might itself qualify someone as "great," but in addition John Paul II also left us with so many wonderful writings, not to mention the courageous example of his holy death.

The problem I see is that we really cannot fairly assess the value of a person's legacy for years—that is, until we really see the fruit of that legacy. To call someone "great" who is only a few years in the grave is to assume a power that lies beyond any single generation. But as self-involved as we are these days, we assume that anything that strikes us as great at this moment can only be great for all time. This is the same narcissistic age that arrogates to itself the power to name itself ("modern," "post-modern").

What's even more troubling is the undercurrent one senses among many "John Paul the Great" cheerleaders that faithful Catholics can only share their enthusiasm and that to do otherwise is to be less than faithful. It's almost as if they believe Christian orthodoxy requires the believer to surrender to the cult of personality that accreted around the late Pontiff (and that to a degree extends to his successor). Let's not take our eyes off the ball: the whole point of the Papacy is not the man who occupies the Chair of Peter, but the reverence due the office of Peter and its role in preserving the orthodoxy of the Catholic Faith.

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