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Your 20 greatest Catholics (et al) of the century

Late last year, we asked readers to nominate their 20 greatest Catholics of the century. The response has been enormous, interesting, inspiring and occasionally amusing. I originally promised to be scientific, assigning 20 points to the number one on your list, 19 to the next and so on. Sorry, it’s too complicated. But I can tell you who’s the most popular Catholic of the century: Pope John XXIII, by a landslide, with 17 firsts.

Others who headed readers’ lists: Fr. Karl Rahner (3), Fr. Thomas Merton (2), Dorothy Day, Pope John Paul II, Gandhi, Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, Mother Teresa, Sr. Teresa Kane, Marion Mancoske (the voter’s mother), Cardinal Joseph Mindzenty and Dr. Jonas Salk.

One first, it may be said, is no match for three seconds, or for sneaking in on the ground floor of everybody’s list. Perhaps, then, it’s better to leave the counting loose and go with the flow.

Then there is the tricky matter of defining greatness. There was no chance a bunch of NCR readers would play fast and loose with the concept. “Great is such a nondescript term,” wrote Hubertine Mog from Wilson, Kan. “I have used the criteria of having contributed to the welfare of many through their positions” (apart from the usual suspects, Mog’s choices include Maria Von Trapp, Helen Hayes, Fr. Eugene Teahan, an “ebullient Irish priest, beloved by all, from Ellsworth, Kan.”)

Explains Frank Cole of Manorville, N.Y.: “Greatness is that ‘something’ that has a positive and lasting impact on a society that is attributed to a particular individual.” Cole, too, includes Salk, as well as Babe Ruth, Golda Meir and, in a grand gesture -- at number 20 -- his grandparents.

“I was guided by several factors,” adds Rosemary T. Devine, who offers a good blueprint of Christianity: “What persons represent vision, compassion, social justice and prayerfulness? I considered which people have had the greatest impact on the universal church -- not the institution but the people of God -- not only in this country but in the world ... with special attention to those who have willingly given their lives either in defense of others or for the faith.”

Devine’s choices include Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four women martyrs of El Salvador, St. Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein.

Robert J. Sipos of Little Silver, N.J., began with 40 names, then “realized I was drawn to single out those who had struggled with the implications of being Catholic and catholic in our time.” His list includes theologians Yves Congar, Leonardo Boff, Bernard Häring, Ivan Illich, Charles Curran and John L. McKenzie.

Frequently the list says as much about the writer as about the century or its greats. “I’m glad you didn’t define ‘greatest,’ ” writes Damiana Chavez of Los Angeles, who has an offbeat list. Nor, it seems, did we define Catholics, which may explain why some who do not profess the ancient faith made the lists. Chavez’s mix: Pope John XXIII, John F. Kennedy, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez (no relation, she says), Paulo Freire, Jonas Salk, Mikhail Gorbachev, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Day, Helen Caldicott, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Charlie Chaplin and Che Guevara.

Equally beguiling is that of Sr. Rose Marie Dischler from Portage, Wis.: Pope John XXIII, Sr. Joan Chittister, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Pope Paul VI, All martyrs of El Salvador, Precious Blood Sisters slain in Liberia, Henri Nouwen, Members of Call to Action, gay Catholics and those who speak for their rights, Mother Teresa, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the staff of NCR (would I make this up?), Pope John Paul II, silent voices of the mentally ill, homeless, abused, sick and dying.

It’s hopeless: It would take a month of NCRs to list the greats in order. On the other hand, it would be a sin to leave anyone out, seeing that so many thought so long and creatively about the subject; and seeing that these relatively few were chosen from the millions who drew breath on the earth this busy century. Here we go. Apart from a few adjustments in spelling and minor clarifications, we will try to stay true to the names on the lists as we received them. That the lists/paragraphs get shorter shows the extent of duplication.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the Berrigan brothers, Bishop Raymond Hunthausen, Fr. John Courtney Murray, Cardinal Leo Suenens, Sr. Katherine Drexel, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams (Northern Ireland Nobel Peace Prize winners), Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Franz Jaegerstatter, the Salvadoran martyrs, Hans Küng, Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, Lech Walesa, Fr. Leonardo Boff.

Cardinal Everisto Arns, Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Augustine Bea, Fr. Damien the Leper, Paulo Freire, Archbishop John Quinn.

Fr. Michael McGivney, Bishop Andrew McDonald, Bishop Joseph McNicholas “Is St. Phillipine Duchesne in this century?” this reader also asks.

Flannery O’Connor, Fr. Virgil Michel.

Clare Booth Luce, Mother Reginald Leahy. This entry, from the Presentation Sisters in San Francisco, notes they “would have liked to include some of other faiths, such as Gandhi.” Many other voters paid no such attention to denominations.

Dom Helder Cåmera, Henri de Lubac, Msgr. Jack Egan, Benigno and Corazon Aquino, Bertrand Aristide, Rigoberta Menchu, Patty and Pat Crowley. “I have another 50 who should be on the list,” adds Bertha Haas, who got in her 20.

Cardinal John Dearden, Fr. Raymond Brown, Fr. Godfrey Dieckmann, Fr. Carl Stuhlmueller, Fr. Raymond Bourgeois, Tip O’Neill, Fr. Eugene LaVerdiere, Bishop Jacques Gaillot. “It was a good exercise,” adds Sr. Dorothy Jonaitis, of Denver, Colo.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Lanza del Vasto, Peter Maurin, Molly Rush, Jean Vanier, Charles de Foucault, Penny Lernoux. This anonymous reader wisely comments: “The rankings are of course rather arbitrary. Moreover, some of the greatest and most inspiring people are those common people who put their lives on the line for their faith in various ways and whose names we will never know.”

Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Msgr. Reginald Hillenbrand, Fr. Josef Jungmann, Charles Peguy, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, Italian President Amintore Fanfani, Mary Daly, John Noonan, Lady Barbara Ward. Adds David P. Efroymson of Philadelphia: “If fame or celebrity is a big factor, Joe DiMaggio would probably be there somewhere.” He also would have loved to include Joseph Cunneen, John Cogley et al, but that would be cheating.

Fr. Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Terry Waite (Anglican cleric imprisoned in Beirut), Rosemary Radford Ruether, Fr. Andrew Greeley, Matthew Fox.

Fr. Anthony de Mello, Sr. Mary Luke Tobin.

Albert Einstein, Princes Diana of Wales, FDR, Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Sr. Thea Bowman.

Billy Graham, Red Skelton. (Perhaps it should be noted, again, that this list -- just for example -- had 15 names, beginning with Gandhi and Dorothy Day, but all had previously been mentioned except BG and RS.)

Eugene Debs, Jackie Robinson, Linus Pauling, Walter Reuther, Rosa Parks, George McGovern, Edward R. Murrow, Jessie Jackson. “Their lives and deeds inspire us still,” adds Tom Sciamanna.

Mother Cabrini, Founders of Maryknoll, Graham Greene, Eugene McCarthy, Gov. Al Smith.

Stephen Hawking, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Madame Curie, Drs. Crich and Watson, Dr. Alexander Fleming, Susan B. Anthony, Marian Anderson.

Hanna Ashrawi, Barbara Jordan, Steve Biko, Victor Frankl, Pablo Casals, Pablo Picasso.

Fr. Flanagan of Boys Town.

Fr. Edward Schillebeecks, Fr. Garrigou Lagrange, Reinhold Niebuhr, Gerard Phillips, Gabriel Marcel, Albert Schweitzer, Jacques Ellul, Fr. Bernard Lonergan. These latter were among the entries of Spencer Stopa from Alamagordo, N.M., who suggested the idea in the first place.

Tom Dooley, Fr. Richard Rohr, Padre Pio, Therese Neumann (of the stigmata), Robert Kennedy, Catherine De Hueck Doherty.

The Argentine Madres/Mothers, Jim and Kathy McGinnis, Agnes Mary Mansour, the Vietnam martyrs, Rose and Joseph Kennedy, Cardinal James Gibbons, Fr. John A. Ryan, Mev Puleo, Sr. Madeleva, Sic (no one said it was a perfect century), Gen. Omar Bradley, Adlai Stevenson, Saul Alinsky, Hubert Humphrey, Pavorotti, Lawrence Welk.

Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward.

Fr. Patrick Lofton, Sr. Kathy Farrelley, Katie Quigley, Sr. Helen Prejean, Brian McNaught, John O’Neill, Sr. Lucy, OSF, Fr. Richard McBrien.

Louis Armstrong, Seamus Heaney, Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Stewart, Romano Guardini, Ed Sullivan, Mahalia Jackson, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Rabbi Abraham Heschel.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel “and all religious who died as martyrs in Latin America,” Fr. Jon Sobrino, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría. “It is interesting to attempt to name our century’s greats, but any listing fails,” notes Rosemarie Gorman of Bethel, Conn.

That’s everyone. Except, of course, for the millions who in various more quietly heroic ways took their greatness with them to the grave. The lists, such as they are, bring back memories, help put things in perspective.

“This got me thinking about things important,” Ron Mancoske wrote. “Thanks so much for asking me to think about the significant influences upon my life,” Sr. Eleanor McNichol wrote. “These are people who inspire me,” Peggy Saunders noted at the top of her list. “May the Lord send more like them.” And Dennis Fleming: “Thank you for this wonderful chance to realize, despite all the evil that’s occurred, there were many instances where the Spirit was very much alive this century.”

Our deep gratitude to those who wrote. We hope no lists got lost by the wayside. NCR hereby promises to repeat this exercise every hundred years.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 1998