An estimated crowed of a million and a half people jammed into St. Peter's Square this past weekend for the beatification of Pope John Paul II -- a visual tribute to the sustained popularity of the late pontiff. And the visual tribute is fitting, because John Paul was the first pope to fully embrace television.
In a column on the beatification in The Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten questions what lies at the heart of that popularity. He wonders "how well this approving crowd listened to or read what John Paul II preached and wrote," or if they were -- instead -- drawn in by the pagentry and show of his papacy.
It's a question that followed John Paul II throughout his long reign: if the medium is indeed the message, could the pope's message -- often at odds with technology and modernity -- cut through the TV-ready imagery?
Back in 1987, I wrote a magazine piece profiling John Paul's then-new media team, headed by a TV-saavy archbishop from Philadelphia, John Foley. Along with his ex-actor-boss, Foley crafted irresistable images of a charistmatic leader.
A bishop I spoke to for the article at the time compared John Paul to Reagan: both men were more personally popular than their policies. And they hoped that personal attraction (aided by television imagery) would make their message more appealing -- but could it?
Earlier that year, I traveled to Rome with a friend who'd grown up in a Polish Catholic parish in New Jersey. Through some connections, we were able to score fourth-row tickets to the pope's weekly Wednesday appearances on St. Peter's Square.
We found ourselves surrounded by other young Americans with special contacts -- each one overflowing with enthusiasm as the pope approached the stage. They yelled his name like he was a rock star. I then asked if they agreed with the pope on contraception, married priests, or the role of women. And they waved me off, rolled their eyes: of course not.
That wasn't the point, was it? We were here. Just yards away from a man we had all seen countless times on TV, who now stood before us, live. That was the point.
It will forever be hard to know whether John Paul's charisma and sophisticated use of television helped him shape the Catholic Church. Five years after his death, and as he is beatified, it seems TV shaped our image of John Paul, but the church did not come along for the ride.
Without John Paul -- and the images of him kissing the tarmac at far-flung airports, riding the pope-mobile through crowd-packed avenues, standing above ten of thousands of young people at outdoor stadiums -- the church seems once again adrift, once again appears to struggle with crisis after crisis. Pope John XXIII was less TV-smart, and left behind fewer stunning visuals, but how he shaped the church is still unquestionably felt half-a-century later.
But that's TV for you -- you think it can help you set your agenda, deliver your message just the way you want it. You think you can control TV, but in the end it always wins.
In the end, TV always controls.
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