Who is the greatest Pope of all-time?
We’re left now with a tale of two Popes. Through the luck of the draw and the merits of each man, the field has narrowed from 64 Pontiffs down to two: Benedict XV and John Paul II.
One of Jesus’ many titles is “Prince of Peace”, and I would be hard pressed to name a person who worked to bring Christ’s peace to the world more diligently than the two men we have left in this tournament.
John Paul II is the Pope most of us are probably familiar with. We know the stories of growing up in Communist-controlled Poland. We’ve heard him say that by the time he was twenty, the grave had taken everyone he loved. We’ve seen the biography specials about the athletic, charismatic priest born of working class parents and rising to the papacy. Based on these very facts, his was a life well suited to popular consumption.
Benedict XV may be a name and story less well known. On the surface, he was the polar opposite of John Paul II; an Italian born into an aristocratic family, he was always very frail, matter-of-fact, and not particularly charismatic. However, those close to him dearly loved him, and his love for all mankind was the hallmark of his papacy.
Benedict was elected two months after the outbreak of World War I, and for his entire reign as the Successor of Peter, he was consumed with bringing peace to the world and alleviating the suffering caused by its absence. As Pope, Benedict attempted to craft a peace settlement between Germany and France, but was unsuccessful. He then turned his attention to easing the suffering caused by the war. He created an organization for the exchange of information on missing and wounded soldiers, which – to us living in a social media world – is almost incomprehensible in its usefulness. He organized massive food shipments slotted for children in areas most devastated by the fighting. He orchestrated the transfer of thousands of POWs back to their home countries and managed to convince all sides to give POWs a day of rest on Sundays and holidays.
After the war, Benedict continued his humanitarian efforts, while keeping an eye on building strong relationships with the countries newly created in the wake of the fighting. However, the effects of the post-war Russian Revolution promised dark days to come for the Church and the world.
Benedict’s papacy was ended by pneumonia less than seven years after it began. But those years were crammed with tender care for the “least of these” and a devotion to peace among men.
Two years before Benedict’s death, the future John Paul II was born in Poland. The darkness on the horizon that Benedict saw in the Russian Revolution colored every aspect of young John Paul’s life. By the time he became Pope in 1978, the Cold War was in full swing, and dictatorships all over the world had sprung up.
Through his visits to foreign countries, charisma and an extraordinarily transparent love of God, John Paul is credited with helping to bring about the downfall of dictatorial regimes in Chile, Haiti, Paraguay, his beloved Poland and the entire Soviet bloc. His focus on peace and goodwill among men was not limited to the political sphere, and he worked faithfully to foster open communication among different faiths as well.
The notion that Christ’s love and mercy could transcend time and space, and even reach into the cold, relativistic landscape of the modern world was spoken to us through Benedict XV, and then ecstatically shouted by John Paul II. No aspect of a post-Christian world was left unobserved: the timeless understanding of the dignity of human sexuality was presented to a pornography-soaked culture through Theology of the Body; the unflinching admission of the sins committed by people in the name of the Church was given and numerous apologies issued; and his amazingly public decline in health was humbly lived out as a witness to the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.
Having the second-longest reign as Peter’s successor, John Paul II was, in many ways, the fruition of so many things his predecessors put in motion. He had the same desire to communicate with the whole world, to people of all faiths, that Paul VI embraced; he combined Pius XI’s athleticism with John XXIII’s charisma; and – as so clearly played out in his last years – he had the courage to suffer bodily in service of the Church, like his martyred predecessors did.
A giant who stood on the shoulders of giants, John Paul II emerges as the victor in Pope Madness!