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It seems that lots of great men were born in February, including my husband, Ed, whose birthday is today. You know, people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King, Jr. might count too since he was been born just a month earlier.
Considering the way that politics and other activities are handled lately, you wonder where all the great men have gone. In my high school yearbook, the caption for one of my classmates read, “All great men are dead, and I don’t feel too well myself.” Maybe that’s the problem.
Still, someone has said that great men appear in response to the times they live in, as did Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in World War II, or the aforementioned Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.
And how about Pope John Paul II taking on Communism in Poland and thereby changing the world order? Of course, we might wish that the response to the need for great men was quicker because economic deprivation and war and oppressive governance are not pleasant experiences to live through.
Exactly what is it that makes a man or woman great? Because we realize that there are, and were, women as well as men in the “great” category. Take Blessed Mother Teresa or Eleanor Roosevelt or Queen Elizabeth I. So, if they are not gender-based, what exactly are the signs of greatness?
First, perhaps, would be the influence these people exert upon the world. The “greats” we have mentioned were all powerful in different ways. And their influence extended physically, morally and/or intellectually to an international community.
By confronting the institution of human slavery, Abraham Lincoln began the healing of our country from that initial wound in its democratic system, and also forced the world to recognize the intrinsic immorality of slavery.
Pope John Paul II did a similar thing in denouncing Communism in his native country, and thereby eroding its influence worldwide. Queen Elizabeth I advanced England as a major power in the known world, and Mother Teresa brought the value of every human life to the world’s attention. These people displayed power differently, but with similarly worthy results.
All the saints are indeed examples of greatness whose influence extends to everyone, although not necessarily on the public world stage. St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. John Vianney come to mind. This fact makes us aware that great men and women can be found anywhere, often unrecognized at first, except by those who know them and experience their greatness.
We think of the great mom down the block who holds her family together in love and even joy despite poverty, illness and only God knows what else. Or the great teacher or coach who quietly inspires students over many years while giving them the academic and moral knowledge they need to live fulfilling and useful lives.
That’s another truth about greatness—it can only lead to goodness. We might say that Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin or Idi Amin were great men because their efforts led to widespread world attention. But what they did was evil, and we remember them as tools of the devil rather than as great men.
When we aspire to follow God’s will and create goodness, we are on the natural path to greatness. Maybe we won’t discover the cure for cancer or achieve world peace, but who can predict the extent of the influence of simple goodness? We can only try.
(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †