In approximately 2,000 years there have been 265 popes of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope is the Bishop of Rome, who is considered “primus inter pares” (first among equals) among the thousands of bishops of the church. (Incidentally, it is often said that popes claim to speak infallibly, but in fact there has only been ONE infallible pronouncement, in 1950, but that’s another story.)

In all that time, there are only two popes who are considered “great.” The first was Leo the Great, who personally persuaded Attila the Hun in 452 to draw back his great host and not attack Rome. That was a tale of really legendary personal and spiritual courage.

The second was Karol Wojtila, Pope John Paul II, who just died this year. Ex-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev published an op-ed piece in the New York Times in the early 1990s saying that it was that one man, John Paul II, who was responsible for bringing down the evil Soviet empire. Wojtila’s story involves immense spiritual and physical courage, under the Nazi domination in Poland, under the subsequent Soviet domination, and on into a world dominated by the American empire.

Tomight I watched the first half of a new CBS two-part mini-series on the life of Pope John Paul II. The other half is Wednesday night at 8. It stars Cary Elwes (from Princess Bride) as the young pope, and Jon Voigt as the older pope.

Gosh, it was good. It skimmed the surface of an incredibly dense story that could take days or years to tell. But it was fine cinema.

One thing it minimized–because this doesn’t make for good TV drama–is that Wojtila wasn’t just a “bookish” person. He is one of the all-time great heavy-weight Catholic philosophers. I almost got a Ph.D. in philosophy at a Catholic university in the 1980s, and everybody held him in awe as a thinker.

But that was a small part of who he was. He was mainly a giant of courage, physical and spiritual courage, and the first part of this mini-series did a good job showing that. I usually hate sappy TV movies, but this one had me riveted.

You might want to catch the second part on Wednesday night, which covers his years as pope. (The first part mainly showed him dodging Nazis and Communists in his youth.) I’m going to tape it.

Incidentally, of course this movie just skims the surface. In reality, so far as I’ve heard, Wojtila was much more of a womanizer, drinker, and wild poet in his youth than you see in this saint’s story. But that’s okay. God knows.

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