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March 31, 2014

On April 27, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II will be canonized. Both were great men who made epochal contributions to the Catholic Church. While John XXIII made an enormous contribution to transforming the Catholic Church, John Paul II is one of the greatest popes in the Church's 2,000-year-history, perhaps the greatest.

This can be seen at many levels. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church was pointed toward becoming a global Church. Pope John Paul made that a reality with 104 trips outside of Italy to 129 countries during his 26-year pontificate. Most of those trips were packed with a staggering number of speeches, meetings, Masses and other public and private events.

Pope John Paul was a man of rare courage and prophetic effect. His visit to his Polish homeland in 1979 started the fall of Eastern bloc communism, a process that he prodded along over the next 10 years until a seemingly indestructible system collapsed in a largely non-violent way. He was also a strong opponent of the two Gulf Wars, although with less effect.

In the confusion that followed Vatican II, Pope John Paul gave the Church solid direction and new self-confidence, something that had its greatest effect in the global South. The Catholic Church has become a force like never before in Africa and is rapidly growing in Asia.

He inaugurated World Youth Day, which has given millions of young Catholics a sense of the global Church and a deep faith that reverberates down to the parish level.

Much of the revitalization sparked by Pope John Paul was due to his powerful persona, unquestionable integrity and life of deep prayer. However, his teaching also greatly refined and deepened the teaching of Vatican II. His 14 encyclicals were a drop in the bucket compared with the 85 penned by Pope Leo XIII, but almost all of them had heft. They, along with numerous other documents and speeches, represent an intellectual legacy that the Church will explore for a long time to come.

The attempted assassination of the pope in May 1981 was perhaps a testimony to his enormous influence. This cannot be said with certainty since it may never be known whether the attempt was the action of a lone, deranged gunman or part of a plot by worldly powers. What is certain is that once Pope John Paul was back on his feet, he remained undeterred by threats to his safety.

The Polish pope even reformed the rosary, adding another set of mysteries to that personal devotion that tens of millions of Catholics pray daily.

Few, if any, historical figures have had such a positive effect on the world as Pope John Paul II. He will soon be officially listed among the saints; he should also be listed among the great people of history.