What does it mean to be great? (Part 1)

The slogan “Make America Great Again” during the last election cycle challenged the electorate to believe that somehow America had fallen from greatness and that a vote for Trump would put us back on the right track as a nation. The slogan begs the question of what exactly is this “greatness” that has been lost and how was it lost? Of course, there is always the question of how this supposedly lost characteristic is going to be restored?

One of the useful things about slogans is that they are vague. You can read almost anything into them. The Obama slogan of “Yes we can” is just as vague but implies that working together we can do almost anything. It has a positive emotional tone to it that attracts people. “Make America Great Again” challenges the listener with a positive emotional tone as well, while implying that at present something from the past has been lost. It implies that we were great in the past but that that we have lost it. The difficulty then is that greatness remains a vague concept. As with most slogans, we get emotional tone without substance.

Since the desire for greatness and the fear that it has been lost moved so many people in the last election cycle, it might be helpful to explore the concept of greatness, at least as it has been used when speaking of the quality of leadership and national glory over the centuries.

Wikipedia describes greatness as, “a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object. Greatness can also be referred to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others. The concept carries the implication that the person or object, when compared to others of a similar type, has clear advantage over others.” So, part of the slogan is the implication that at one point our nation was superior to every other nation but we have fallen from that exalted position and now we are only one among others. At least this clarification allows us to look for indicators of superiority or lost superiority.

We can also get a sense of what is meant by “greatness” if we look to some of the historical figures who have been given the honorific of “great”. This would include secular leaders such as Alexander the Great, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) and Catherine the Great (Russia). Alexander united the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East as far as Northern India into a Hellenic civilization that transformed the world at the time and whose impact is still being felt some two thousand three hundred years later. Charlemagne worked a similar feat in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire at a time when Europe had descended into political and social chaos. He also provided institutions that maintained education and culture in those dark times, as well as providing sufficient military strength to keep Christian Europe from being overrun by the wave of an emerging Islamic empire from the East. Catherine took a cultural and political backwater, with a lot of land but little power, technology or unity and set it on the road to being transformed into one of the most powerful nations in the world.  In each of these leaders, greatness was manifest in their drive to transform their nation by unifying it and building bridges to those nations and cultures around it. Theirs was a message and strategy of transformation through inclusion.

After his death, some commentators described Pope Saint John Paul II as “great”, suggesting that history will give him the honorific. If that happens, he won’t be the first. There is Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Pope Saint Leo the Great and Pope Saint Nicholas the Great.

Pope Saint Leo the Great was pope from 440-461. He was quite active in combating the major Christological heresies of the time. Though his greatness in the minds of the people was probably due to his confrontation with Attila the Hun, in which he convinced the barbarian leader not to sack Rome.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great was pope from 590 to 604. This was a particularly difficult time in the Western Church as the center of government had moved from Rome to Constantinople. Rome was left to its own devices with little protection from the barbarian tribes. He negotiated peace treaties with the barbarian invaders, converting many of them. Gregory provided a system of farms on the outskirts of Rome to provide jobs and food for the poor of Rome. He sponsored many missionaries, including St. Augustine of Canterbury; St. Columban, and St. Leander. Gregory was also a prolific liturgist, writer and teacher.

Pope Saint Nicholas was pope from 858 to 867. He is not that well known among the “great” popes of history. Nicholas was pope at a time when there was significant conflict between the church and secular rulers. Secular rulers wanted absolute control over their territories and that included the church. They wanted the ability to appoint clergy to their offices. This undermined the relative independence of the church and forced church leaders to be nothing more than political appointments with no training, interest or temperament for ministry. This lead to profound abuses in the church. Nicholas opposed this by disciplining or excommunicating kings and bishops who acted contrary to the laws of the church. In addition, he was a champion of the poor and sent out missionaries to many parts of Europe still unconverted to Christian belief. Nicholas recognized the problem that the church faced and made initial efforts to deal with the challenge.

We are much too close in time to judge what history will say of Pope Saint John Paul II. However, during his 26-year pontificate he was prolific in his accomplishments which include the Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church and another Code for the Eastern Churches. He produced some sixteen encyclicals and five books, as well as producing the Theology of the Body which was an outstanding development in the theology of marriage and sexuality. He took the papacy far beyond the borders of Vatican City with his many trips abroad and brought the Church to the people.

What is it that made these popes great? Each of them produced extraordinary achievements in the time and place where they lived. Each of them lived in very difficult times of serious threats to the church. Each of them had the courage to face up to these challenges in a manner that was consistent with the Gospels, even under threat to their own safety and welfare. Each of them were brilliant men who added to the spiritual and intellectual wealth of the church through their preaching and writings. Each of them were ardent evangelizers within the context of their time and place. Each of them were humble and holy men.



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