Leading man: Pope John Paul's media legacy

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Following Pope John Paul II's death, Patrick McCormick reflected that the spotlight that followed him is a great a part of his legacy as the reasons he was in the spotlight.

Pope John Paul II’s funeral may have been the largest media event of modern times. Presidents, prime ministers, and prelates from more than 200 nations joined a sea of 3 million pilgrims flooding into St. Peter’s Square from every corner of the globe.

And for a week the world’s press gave the pope’s wake and funeral wall-to-wall, round-the-clock coverage. Newspapers and television screens were plastered with images of John Paul II and the endless parade of mourners marching past his body, while columnists and commentators spilled an ocean of ink and chewed up a sky full of airwaves discussing the legacy of this global “superstar.”

And superstar he was, for the world paused to mourn the passing of John Paul II not simply because he was a pre-late, theologian, and possible saint but because the former actor from Poland had become a global icon, an international celebrity who strode the world’s stage for more than a quarter century and who—in life and death—drew crowds in the millions and tens of millions.

But what kind of a superstar was he, and how was this cultural icon viewed and understood by his global audience?

Middle-aged Catholics remember when Pope John XXIII was an international celebrity, but in the late 1950s and early ’60s, good Pope John was celebrated for the way he embraced modernity and the world beyond the Vatican. Reversing a century of papal hostility and suspicion toward all things modern and secular, John XXIII praised the rise of democracy, the advancement of women, and the progress of science and technology, and found much to celebrate in the “signs of the times.”

For the past 26 years, however, Pope John Paul II was a much more critical consumer of contemporary culture, indeed, of modernity itself. Time and again he challenged audiences to resist and oppose a worldly culture of consumption and death. Like a biblical prophet crying out in the wilderness, this 20th- and 21st-century pope repeatedly took the modern age to task for its hubris, avarice, and immorality, and challenged audiences to acknowledge and follow a clear and unchanging set of moral norms.

John Paul II was, for Catholics and non-Catholics, a sign of contradiction. In spite of his extraordinary efforts at ecumenism and reconciliation, this pontiff will probably be better remembered for the things he stood against, for the lines he drew in the sand.

Supporters will remember him as a prophet who challenged a modern and secular age that had lost its way. Critics will remember him as an opponent of theologians, feminists, and gay and lesbian people. But either way, he will be remembered as a moral authority who challenged and confronted the world around him.

Seeing the pope as a sign of contradiction came easily to most Americans. John Paul II took strong stands on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, women’s ordination, bioethics, and euthanasia, as well as capital punishment, consumerism, nuclear proliferation, and the war in Iraq. It would be hard to find even a handful of people outside the hierarchy who agreed with him on every one of these issues.

Still, millions of Americans (and not just Catholics) were intrigued and fascinated by this pope. Part of this fascination was no doubt due to his extraordinary charisma and presence. Crowds around the world were touched and moved by his eloquence and piety. But it was also the clarity and force of his convictions that large numbers of people (though by no means all or even most) found so impressive.

Most Americans believe in democracy, the separation of church and state, and the full equality of women, and disagree with several of the pope’s positions. But there was a Gary-Cooper-in-High-Noon attractiveness about his willingness to take a stand.

This article appeared in the June 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 70, No. 6, pages 46-48).


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