Church historians generally recognize two popes with the title “the Great”: St. Leo I (r. 440–461) and St. Gregory I (590–604). Some Catholic historians add St. Nicholas I (858–867). Pope St. John Paul II’s recent canonization was cause for discussion over whether he, too, should be afforded this honorary title.

Some Catholics granted the designation even before his canonization, as the names of a high school in Dumfries, Virginia, and a university in Escondido, California, attest. Books published to coincide with his canonization also made use of the title (see here and here). Many others have applied it informally; still others argue against it. The discussion leads to the question of just what makes a pope “great” to begin with.

The answer lies in reviewing the life and history of those successors of Peter considered “great.”

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