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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

In the shadow of John Paul II

The wall-to-wall coverage of Pope John Paul II’s final illness, his death and funeral, and the events leading to the conclave that will choose his successor is certainly indicative of a broad appeal that spanned cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In a world in need of an anchor and answers, he provided both.

Still, the nature of modern media is such that those unfamiliar with the history of the latter part of the 20th century might conclude that the pope (with some help from Ronald Reagan) defeated European communism with his right hand and defended the faith against internal malcontents and dissidents with his left.

This is a largely comic book caricature that obscures some greater truths not easily transmitted or understood by much of the mainstream media.

There is no great mystery to John Paul II’s worldwide popularity. He combined a powerful message with a forceful personality and used modern communication techniques, not least large televised rallies, to carry that message to the four corners of the earth. Youthful and vigorous (as he was in 1978) or aged and infirmed (as he was in his last years) it didn’t matter. He had a story to tell and he aimed to tell it to whomever -- peasants and prime ministers, the influential and the voiceless -- might listen.

A sophistication about the media would now seem a prerequisite for the job, though it is hard to envision John Paul’s successor having quite the same flair.

It is also difficult to imagine that the next man will possess the absolute certainty that was the hallmark of John Paul’s tenure. Such assurance (some called it arrogance) is a rare commodity even among members of the College of Cardinals. By the time 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla ascended to the throne of St. Peter he knew what he thought -- and he was not shy about translating those beliefs into action once he became Vicar of Christ. The Catholic theological and intellectual landscape is littered with those who paid a price for their disagreements with John Paul II and the Vatican’s enforcers of what some term orthodoxy (NCR, Feb. 25). One imagines that even some among the hierarchy wouldn’t mind a pope who was more open to listening, considering new scholarship and respecting other points of view.

Much of the media coverage over the past weeks has focused on the hot-button issues said to be of most concern to American Catholics: church teaching on birth control, on optional celibacy, the role of women within the institution, abortion, gay rights, stem cell research, the clergy sex abuse crisis, and so on. All of these are, of course, important concerns. But the notion (implied in much of what gets discussed on television) that the next pope, like a newly elected president presenting a program to Congress, could or would move quickly to, say, allow priests to marry, is absurd. Nor, frankly, is it desirable.

The real short-term question is stylistic. Will the new pontiff teach and explain or will he assert? Will he allow discussion of forbidden topics? Will he continue to use the benchmark of enthusiastic fidelity to Humane Vitae as a criterion for episcopal appointments? Will bishops continue to fear the wrath of Rome or will the collegiality envisioned by the Second Vatican Council finally be practiced? Will the expertise of the faithful laity be exploited or ignored? And so on.

These questions will be answered not only in dealing with the hot-button issues, but in those areas that rarely appear on the mainstream media’s radar: in Catholic universities, where academic freedom is threatened; in church-affiliated health care institutions, where guidance on the most nettlesome ethical issues imaginable is needed; at the diocesan level, where for too long the gifts of the laity have been ignored; and in our parishes, where the day-to-day life of the church is carried out.

Personality matters. History would have been different had the College of Cardinals selected an Italian cardinal for the second time in 1978, as most every observer then anticipated. The next pope, operating in the shadow of “John Paul the Great,” will make decisions. He will have to choose.

Pray that God gives him wisdom.

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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