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Who Were the “Great” Popes—and Why?

Since the death of our beloved Pope John Paul II on April 2, 2005, many have been hailing him as “John Paul the Great.” Three Popes have had “the Great” appended to their names: Pope St. Leo I (reigned 440–61), Pope St. Gregory I (590–604), and Pope St. Nicholas I (858–67). But the Church has never officially pronounced these Popes as “great”; rather, they have been identified as great both by popular acclamation at the time of their deaths and by history itself.

Shield of God

Pope St. Leo the Great was born in Rome in the early 400s. As an acolyte, he was sent to Africa, where he met St. Augustine. He later served as a deacon for both Pope Celestine I and Pope Sixtus III. Subsequently, he was elected to succeed Sixtus and was consecrated on September 29, 440. His papacy was marked by greatness: He tirelessly preached against the heresies of Manichaeism, Pelagianism, Priscillianism, and Nestorianism.

In particular, Leo fought against the heresy of Eutyches, who, like Nestorius, denied the hypostatic union (the union of the divine and human natures in the one divine Person of Jesus Christ). He issued his famous Tome, which condemned Eutyches and clearly taught the mystery of the Incarnation: “The true God [Jesus], therefore, was born with the complete and perfect nature of a true man; he is complete in his nature and complete in ours.”

To settle the matter, he convoked the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at which his Tome was read and the attending bishops shouted in response, “This is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the apostles; we all believe this; the orthodox believe this; anathema to him who believes otherwise. Peter has spoken through Leo.” The Council then defined that “the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation.”

Leo was also a courageous leader. In 452 he met Attila the Hun, known as “the Scourge of God,” and succeeded in saving Rome from being sacked. Tradition holds that at the meeting Attila saw Peter and Paul wielding swords above Leo, and this ominous threat motivated Attila to retreat. For this reason, Leo was called “the Shield of God.” Unfortunately, he was not as successful three years later with the Vandal Genseric, although he did persuade the barbarian not to burn Rome.

During a time of decline for the Roman Empire, Leo sought to strengthen the Church. He suppressed surviving pagan festivals and closed the remaining pagan temples. He sent missionaries to Africa, which was being ravaged by the barbarians. He instituted many reforms, including impressing strict discipline on the bishops. Although he spoke of the papacy as “a burden to shudder at,” Leo met the challenge with great fidelity and self-sacrifice. Pope St. Leo truly deserved the title “the Great.”

Servant of the Servants

The next Pope called “the Great” was Pope St. Gregory. Gregory was born to a wealthy Roman family and received a classical education. He was raised in a devout and holy Christian family. His mother, Sylvia, was honored as a saint. Later, he became the prefect of Rome. During the Lombard invasion in 571, he cared for the numerous refugees who flooded the city.

After his parents died, Gregory became very wealthy, inheriting his parents’ estate in Rome and six Sicilian estates. But in 574, three Benedictine-monk friends persuaded him to abandon the world and enter religious life. Gregory became a Benedictine and turned his parents’ home into a monastery, naming it St. Andrew’s. He sold his other estates and used the money to found monasteries and give relief to the poor. Because of his outstanding abilities, he was recruited for papal service, first as one of Pope Pelagius II’s deacons (578) and then as the papal nuncio to the Byzantine court (579–85). Afterwards, he returned to his monastery, becoming the abbot of St. Andrew’s.

On September 3, 590, he was elected and consecrated pope. His pontificate was marked by greatness: He restored clerical discipline and removed unworthy bishops and priests from office. He protected the Jews from persecution. He fed those who suffered from famine and ransomed those captured by barbarians. He negotiated peace treaties with the barbarian invaders, converting many of them. He sponsored many missionaries, including St. Augustine of Canterbury, whom he sent to England; St. Columban, who evangelized the Franks; and St. Leander, who converted the Spanish Visigoths who were still Arians (i.e., they denied the divinity of Jesus).

Gregory was also a great teacher. In his Liber Regulae Pastoralis, he described the duties of bishops, and this work remains necessary spiritual reading for any bishop. He recorded the lives of many saints in his Dialogues. Many of his sermons and letters are extant. He revitalized the Mass and is credited with instituting what is commonly called “Gregorian chant.” The practice of offering thirty successive Masses upon the death of a person (“Gregorian Masses”) also bears his name.

Gregory is credited with being the founder of the medieval papacy. Despite his many accomplishments and abilities, he was a humble man. He took as his official title “Servant of the Servants of God,” the official title of the pope to this day. He is a Doctor of the Church and is considered the last of the Western Church Fathers.


The last of the “greats” is Pope St. Nicholas I, who was born about 820 in Rome. Many people who know about Leo and Gregory are unaware that there is a third “great” pope. The reason is not that he has less claim to the title but simply that he is less well known. He is, nevertheless, recognized as one the “great” popes in the official list of popes in the Vatican annual, the Annuario Pontificio. He was a significant pontiff in his own age and was acknowledged as such by his contemporaries, but the decline of the papacy that followed in the ninth and tenth centuries prevented his acquiring the same status as Leo and Gregory in wider Church history.

Nicholas’s father was an official in the papal administration. He was educated at the Lateran, served in the papal administration of Pope Sergius II, was ordained a deacon by Pope Leo IV, and was a trusted advisor to Pope Benedict III.

Upon Pope Benedict’s death, Nicholas was elected pope on April 22, 858. He soon became known for his charity and justice. For instance, he denounced the king of Lorraine for attempting to divorce his legitimate wife to marry his mistress; not only did Benedict depose the archbishops of Cologne and Trier who permitted the invalid marriage, but he withstood the pressures of the king’s father, Emperor Louis II, to acquiesce. When the powerful archbishop of Rheims wrongfully deposed the bishop of Soissons, Nicholas ordered him reinstated. Twice he excommunicated the archbishop of Ravenna for abusing his office. Nicholas also withstood the attempts of both the patriarch of Constantinople and the Byzantine emperor to encroach upon the rights of the papacy. Without question, he courageously displayed the virtues of charity and justice.

At a time when secular rulers not only were gaining earthly power but wanted to control the Church, he preserved the prestige and authority of the papacy. He was a champion of the poor, a patron of the arts, and a reformer of clergy and laity alike. He also sponsored missionary work to Bulgaria and to Scandinavia under the leadership of St. Ansgar. In all, he exercised his office with the highest personal integrity. He died on November 13, 867.

When one considers the great work of these three popes, it’s easy to understand why they have come to be called “the Great.” They were great in their example of holiness as witnessed in their preaching, teaching, evangelization, and leadership—especially in times of persecution and hardship. They were genuine servants of the Lord and his Church.

In Our Midst

The pope most of us have known best is John Paul II. Even a partial list of his accomplishments demonstrates why some are predicting he will be another “great” pope of history.

John Paul reigned for more than twenty-six years, the third longest pontificate. He issued the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the revised Code of Canon Law, and the revised Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. He wrote fourteen encyclicals, thirteen apostolic exhortations, eleven apostolic constitutions, forty-two apostolic letters, and five books. He presided over fifteen synods of bishops. His teaching covered the whole spectrum of doctrine, morals, sacraments, and spirituality.

While many leaders in the world demand apologies, few offer them. John Paul is the only leader ever to offer a Mass imploring the forgiveness of God for wrongs committed by members of the Church (March 12, 2000). In his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, he encouraged devotion to our Lord truly present in the Blessed Sacrament and the reverential offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

He defended Christian morality, as noted especially in his two encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. He emphasized the sanctity of life from conception until natural death, the dignity of the person, and the sacredness of marriage and marital love.

He made 104 pastoral visits outside of Italy. He invited other Christians and non-Christians to dialogue. In particular, he sought to improve relations with the Orthodox churches, hoping to bring about reconciliation and unity.

John Paul canonized 482 and beatified 1,342. For him, the best example of holiness was the Blessed Mother, whom he mentioned at the close of each encyclical and to whom he entrusted his life, having the motto Totus tuus (“All yours”). He encouraged the faithful to pray the rosary and thereby see Jesus through the eyes of Mary.

Before John Paul’s death, Joachim Cardinal Meisner of Cologne, Germany, was asked, “How do you think history will judge him: John Paul the Great, John Paul the Instinctive, John Paul the Charismatic, John Paul the Conservative?” He answered, “Like Leo and Gregory: John Paul the Great.” On several occasions, Pope Benedict XVI has referred to him as “the great Pope John Paul II.” Upon his death, millions stood in line for up to twenty-four hours to pay their respects to the him as his body lay in state.

Time will tell whether “the Great” will be appended to John Paul II’s name, but in the hearts of millions of the faithful, he will always be considered great.


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