Pope John Paul II, media superstar, sets high standard

April 10, 2005|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

The death of Pope John Paul II has turned into an extraordinary global media event - surpassing in its early days coverage of the Asian tsunami, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deaths of former President Ronald Reagan and Princess Diana.

This tidal wave of news, triggered by Pope John Paul's charismatic personality, has provided the Catholic Church with an unparalleled opportunity to present itself in a positive light.

But his winning style, also set a standard of performance that represents a major challenge to the next pope, whoever he may be.

There were some 100,000 major news articles and more than 12 million Internet citations mentioning the pope between his death April 2 and Friday, when his funeral was held, according to an analysis by the media tracking firm Global Language Monitor.

The volume of stories about the pope grew every day last week - from 45,000 on Sunday to 102,000 on Friday.

The moving funeral service, which played out in the early morning hours of Friday in the Eastern United States, could be seen live on an estimated 2 billion televisions around the globe.

"Perhaps the root of this phenomenon lies in the fact that ordinary people came to be acquainted with this pope unlike any other in memory," said Paul J.J. Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor. "He was personable, globetrotting, at his best as a friendly parish priest, writ large. He was a truly global pontiff, adept at using the traditional media and the Internet to his advantage."

Pope John Paul was the first pope of the media age, and he recognized that by generating television images and making news he could sell his message around the world.

Standing at center stage as leader of the world's estimated 1 billion Catholics for more than 25 years he substantially altered expectations of what a pope is supposed to do.

Because of his attractive personality, his intelligence, missionary zeal and commitment to visit Catholics in every area of the world, he became a global iconic figure.

He wrote best sellers, made music videos, invited the press to follow him on holiday and personally answered media questions.

"Other popes, of course, in the past have used different kinds of communications," said Wilton Wynn, the former Rome bureau chief at Time magazine in a recent interview with ABC News. "But this man is the first who fully understands that the church has a great opportunity here to reach the entire world by using the mass media.

"He tries to give the press a new lead each day," said Wynn. "One day he visits those dying people in the slums of Calcutta. Another day the Dalai Lama, and another day he makes a speech against contraception."

The pope's passion for effective communication was reflected last week in the Vatican's adroit handling of the media at the time of his death.

His instructions

Evidently, on his instructions, the media were first notified of his passing via text messages and e-mail.

Across the cable and broadcast networks, attractive representatives of the church could be seen last week, describing in warm detail the pope's winning personality, his passion to reach out to people and the rich traditions of the Catholic church.

But for all of his personal popularity Pope John Paul has been widely criticized for filling stadiums with young people but not churches in Europe and North America.

One reason frequently given is his deeply conservative beliefs on questions of personal morality like abortion, divorce, homosexual relations and artificial birth control - views sharply at odds with modern practices in Europe and North America.

Many who thought of themselves as good Catholics found themselves disagreeing with the pope on some or all of these core issues.

Conservative values

Still, his conservative values are in harmony with the personal beliefs of most Catholics in Africa and Asia, where the church is growing fastest, and Pope John Paul's popularity is likely to endure. Indeed, sainthood may be just around the corner.

But so will the problems he left behind.

The decline of church attendance in Europe in recent years, the withering of the clergy in America, where many parishes lack a priest, and the growing financial problems of the church around the world will require more than faith and media skill to address.

The next pope will be expected to deal with all of that and to engage in world affairs with the same energy and commitment shown by Pope John Paul.

Expectations

At the same time he will face a media and a world that has grown to expect the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to engage it candidly and directly on issues of morality and social justice.

This week, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium described the challenge facing the new pope because of Pope John Paul's extraordinary performance.

"It will be important not only to express the truth but to make it plausible, attractive and beautiful," Danneels said.

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