As millions converge on St. Peter's Square for the pope's Friday (April 8) funeral, many close to the church speculate they may soon be chanting "Magna," or "the Great" -- an honorific that has been bestowed on only two other popes.

Some say calling the late pontiff "John Paul the Great" may hasten discussion of John Paul II's path to sainthood.

The rare informal title, usually granted only hundreds of years after the passing of truly exceptional popes, has been on the lips of many in recent weeks, including heads of state and leaders within the church.

If the will of the masses prevails, the next pope might informally bestow the name upon the late pontiff, according to the Rev. Anthony Figueiredo, who served as personal assistant to John Paul II during 1996-2001.

Figueiredo, now an associate professor of theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., was struck that the calls for greatness are coming from all walks of life, a 21st century version of the "`vox populi' -- the voice of the people."

"I think the very fact of what we are seeing these days, the thousands, the millions affected, so many dignitaries all coming to his funeral, I think ... whichever pope is chosen will just naturally call him `the Great.'

It's beyond doubt," he said.

In addition to recognition of popular opinion, anointing John Paul II with "the Great" would also be a political move.

"The other thing that's going on here is the desire of some people to put this pope on a level above other popes and ensure his policies are not deviated from," said the Rev. John Langan, a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "They're trying to get guarantees that the policies continue."

Dennis Doyle, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, agreed that the next pope likely will be compelled to speak the honorific.

"It does seem to me that the next pope will probably be someone who had great admiration for John Paul II," Doyle said. "For example, only three of the Cardinals (who will elect his successor) were not appointed by him."

Though many popes have been sainted, only two other popes have received the honorific, and they reigned more than 1,300 years ago. The honorifics were granted thousands of years after their deaths.

Pope Leo the Great (440-461) and Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) were given the honorific because of great obstacles to the church overcome during their papacies.

"The church and the world were facing threats," Figueiredo said. "For Leo the Great, it was Attila (the Hun), and in Gregory, it was the Lombards" who attempted to sack Rome.

Leo, or St. Leo I, also defended the church's doctrine of the dual nature of Christ's divinity and humanity. Like John Paul, Gregory, also known as St. Gregory I, served out the end of his papacy despite physical illness; he is best remembered for dispatching missionaries to convert the British Isles.

(Some church historians also attach the honorific to St. Nicholas I, who was pope in 858-67.)

If the next pope honors the title, he will be making a commentary on the life of the pope and the direction of the church under his leadership, Langan said.

"The Great" means "this man not simply was a very good man and close to God but had a major impact on the church and probably on the larger society as well," Langan said.

John Paul II -- who had the third-longest papacy, canonized more saints than any other pope, produced a massive body of literature, traveled to 129 countries and reached out to millions in other faiths -- fits that definition well, Langan said.

In fact, consideration of John Paul's "greatness" began before his death. "This title has really been given for a long time now, particularly for the last five years or so, but as long ago as 10 years or so," Figueiredo said.

In a political move of his own, Vice President Dick Cheney referred to the pope as "John Paul the Great" in a speech at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington this week.

Others, however, are urging more caution. The Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and the author of "Lives of the Popes" and "Lives of the Saints," said the consideration of "great-hood" needs to be more measured.

"This is the wrong time to be considering whether John Paul II can be called `the Great,"' McBrien said. "There is too much euphoria in the air, and that makes objectivity practically impossible."

The rush to establish John Paul II's greatness may be a signal of a push for consideration of his sainthood, according to Figueiredo. "His greatness will already be proclaimed by the pope who has teaching authority to proclaim someone a saint," he said.

Traditionally, at least 25 years must lapse between death and consideration for sainthood, but John Paul shortened the process to five years for Mother Teresa, opening the door for abbreviation in other cases.

Doyle said there were many similarities in the case of Mother Teresa, who has been beatified but not yet sainted, and that of Pope John Paul II.

"Here was a great leader, a significant world figure and a holy man," Doyle said of the pope. Mother Teresa "represented the face of the Catholic Church to the entire world and was thought to be universally holy."

John Paul beatified Mother Teresa during the 25th anniversary of his election in 2003. Over his 26-year papacy, John Paul created more saints than all his modern predecessors combined, canonizing 483 people and beatifying 1,345.

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