The Pope—Why So Popular?
“POPE John Paul II’s visit across Spanish soil has been like a hurricane of popular emotions, enthusiasm and fervor . . . To use the language of numbers . . . John Paul II’s visit has broken all the country’s records.”—ABC, Madrid daily newspaper.
Of course, the pope’s popularity can be explained in simple terms—he is the spiritual leader of over 600 million Catholics around the world, so that in almost any country where there are Catholics he is sure to get a good audience. But that would be an oversimplification of the phenomenon. What, then, are the factors that explain the pope’s popularity at this moment in history?
“He Doesn’t Miss a Trick”
Part of the answer can perhaps be found in his early experience as an actor. Lord Longford, in his authorized biography of Pope John Paul II, says: “It is, however, as an actor that he is best remembered by his schoolfriends. A visiting director told him: ‘One day you will be a great actor.’” The biography continues: “There can be no doubt that this art of the living word . . . permeated and inspired Karol Wojtyla [the pope’s real name] from youth onwards.”
However, what bearing does this have on his rapport with the public? Biographer Lord Longford adds: “It was eventually reflected in the astonishing impact that the future Pope was to make in many different languages on countless millions throughout the world.” Catholic priest and writer Andrew M. Greeley wrote: “He has handled the first six weeks of his job with the accomplished skills of a professional actor and a professional politician. One cannot help but marvel at the flawlessness of his performance.”
Certainly this pope knows how to make use of the emotive and dramatic gesture to win over the masses. For example, before a crowd of 200,000 in Rome, “when a little boy rushed up with flowers, a fussy monsignor tried to chase him away. But the pope grabbed the little bambino and hugged him.” Adds Greeley: “You can tell, somebody said to me, that he studied for the stage. He doesn’t miss a trick.” Priest Greeley agreed: “He sure doesn’t.”
“The Greatest Show, the Biggest Fiesta Ever”
Psychology of the masses is another feature of this pope’s success. A writer for Newsweek described the pope as “a gifted trouper who can play a vast crowd like an actor enthralling an audience.” An example of this ability took place on his arrival in Mexico in 1979. As noted in the book The Man Who Leads the Church, he was met at the airport with “a full-scale mariachis band—traditional local musicians” who “swung into the great Mexican favourite, ‘Cielito Lindo’ . . . It was a cliché, but nobody cared. This pontifical tour was to be the greatest show, the biggest fiesta ever. John Paul II’s sense of spectacle proved equal to his hosts’. He stalked down the gangway and fell on his hands and knees to kiss Mexican soil. (It had become a traditional gesture. . . . But it never failed of its effect.)”
The effect of all of this on the crowds worldwide is well described by Catholic author Peter Hebblethwaite: “What messages were they picking up from this exciting new pope? . . . In the popular enthusiasm aroused by the journeys of John Paul II people simply forgot or omitted to attend to what he was actually saying. . . . The reason he was able to get away with almost anything was that the novelty of his pontificate and the charism of his presence provided a distraction from what he actually said.” Yes, as they enjoy the show the masses seem to miss the implications of the pope’s forthright speeches. But for many liberal-minded Catholics his sermons are very unpalatable, too hard line and conservative.
‘A Partner With Statesmen and Politicians’
Another cause of the pope’s popularity is that we live in a generation that has been conditioned to offer and accept idol worship. People worldwide have their television and cinema stars, sports idols and political saviors. So why not religious idols too? If the Protestants have their Billy Graham and “Reverend” Moon, why should not Catholics have their John Paul II? In case anyone should think this is an exaggeration, note what Catholic writer Hebblethwaite states in his book The Year of the Three Popes: “When a man becomes pope, a process of mythologization starts which it is difficult to resist. His previous life is edited to show that he was long destined for the office he would eventually occupy [the papacy]. He becomes over-night a world figure, a partner in dialogue with statesmen and politicians and with Church leaders of all kinds.”—Italics ours.
Therefore, in the modern context the pope thrusts himself into the limelight by reason of his constant contact and communication with “statesmen and politicians.” He becomes another worldwide TV personality. Since he is also the head of a temporal state, Vatican City, he is received with all honor by heads of state and political rulers—even by the communists! Yes, “despite its minuscule size, however, Vatican City has been said to possess an influence greater than that of Italy itself,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica.
But other factors have also greatly influenced the publicity projection of the present pope. Catholic editor Rowanne Pascoe supplies a clue, saying: “Despite, or perhaps because of, his lack of army divisions, the Pope is the one person who can be called a world leader. In an age of political pygmies he has taken over the moral leadership of the world.” This suggests that the political figures of the world are so low on moral stature that it makes the pope look like a giant!
The Pope, Politics and Poland
Another element that has enamored this pope to the masses is his evident use of nationalism and his involvement in political and social issues. He has crossed swords with several governments and political leaders. Herein lies an apparent contradiction between his commands to the clergy to keep out of politics and his own speeches that have entangled him in political issues.
For example, Lord Longford noted that during the pope’s visit to the Philippines “he warned the anti-government wing of the Church there to avoid interfering in politics, reminding them of their roles in society: ‘You are priests and religious. You are not social or political leaders or officials of a temporal power.’” Yet in his speech to the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference he is quoted as saying that ‘although the Church could be linked to revolutionary social reform, political violence could not be condoned.’ During his 13 days in Brazil, said Longford, the pope “urged the poor to do everything within their power to ensure that they obtain rights owing to them by the government. His visit was, according to The Universe, ‘an accusation of the Brazilian Government’s criminal neglect.’”
The pope’s political power is exemplified by his recent visit to Poland, which, according to press reports, was very carefully planned with a view to resolving Poland’s critical political and economic problems. William Safire of The New York Times wrote: “Church and state have reached some secret agreement, and the political blessing so avidly sought by Moscow’s chosen Polish leader was given. . . . The church, to endure, is sometimes required to make deals with totalitarians.”
The fact that the pope’s visit to Poland also had a political motivation has further support. President Reagan interviewed Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, who had accompanied the pope on his visit to Poland. Why? Because “Mr. Reagan wanted the Cardinal’s impressions of the situation in Poland after the papal visit with its sharp political ramifications.” (Italics ours.) Who can deny that the pope’s travels have political overtones, which fact also makes him popular with the masses, if not always with the rulers?
It is one thing to understand the reasons for his present popularity, but a more important question is, Why have his world travels been necessary now? What message has he presented? How deep are its effects? The following articles will discuss those issues.
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‘The pope becomes a partner in dialogue with statesmen and politicians’