VATICAN CITY – It's being proclaimed by powerful clergymen, printed in newspapers and even tucked into a Vatican-drafted homily: Pope John Paul the Great.
A worldwide movement is building to honor the late pontiff with a title that's been given only twice — and to predecessors who led the church more than 14 centuries ago and both became saints. Could John Paul II (search) become the third?
That depends on the will of followers and church leaders rather than any formal process, experts in Vatican law and tradition say.
"It's 'vox populi' (voice of the people) on a grand scale," said the Rev. Robert Taft, a professor of church history at the Pontifical Oriental Institute (search) in Rome. "If people keep calling him 'the Great' then he will become 'the Great.'"
A canon law authority, the Rev. James Conn, noted there is no "code or procedure" to add the title. "It's more of a popular acclamation," said Conn, who teaches at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. "It gains strength and credibility each time it's proclaimed."
Which is becoming often.
Italian newspapers Monday were filled with the honorific. "The long farewell to John Paul the Great," read the headline in Corriere della Sera. The official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, called him "John Paul II, the Great."
Catholic-oriented Web sites were full of references to 'the Great' pope.
"So how would he be remembered? He will be Pope John Paul the Great," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Britain following the pontiff's death Saturday.
The text for a Mass on Sunday in St. Peter's Square (search) called the late pope "John Paul the Great," a title whose two papal possessors are also saints. But the reference was dropped by Cardinal Angelo Sodano when he delivered the homily.
No explanation was offered by the Vatican. But Holy See texts are considered official even if not read aloud.
"In short, he was the most significant leader of our times. I'd say he was the man of the century, and at some time in the future may he get another title, `Pope John Paul the Great,"' said Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of Buffalo, N.Y.
It would be the first time in many centuries.
The 5th-century Pope Leo I, or Leo the Great (search), was known for his stirring writings and his unwavering defense of the fundamental theological concept of Christ having two distinct natures, divine and human. He also persuaded Atilla the Hun to spare Rome and managed to save many Romans from torture and other abuses during a later rampage by Vandals.
The other pope to carry the title, Gregory I, brought a monastic simplicity to the church during his 14-year papacy ending in 604 and used its vast holdings to help starving citizens of Rome during battles with rival states. He also strongly defended Rome's primacy over the seat of the eastern congregations, Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, and wrote a treatise on pastoral duties that exerted strong influence even into the Middle Ages.
Both popes were declared "doctors" of the church — an extremely rare designation to those whose works and actions are considered essential to understanding Christianity and Roman Catholic tenets. John Paul bestowed it in 1997 to a 19th-century French nun, St. Therese of Lisieux.
Many consider John Paul's legacy — including his global travels, writings on church teachings and stands against communism — a modern equivalent to the profound marks left by the early popes.
"Some have already dubbed him `John Paul the Great,"' Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said Sunday.
But everyone will be watching to see if it's uttered by the next pope, who will be selected in the cardinals' secret conclave beginning later this month.
"Something like that would take it to another level," said the Rev. Joseph Koterski, a professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York. "This title comes by acclamation by the church. People are already using it. It now must stand the test of time."