Images and Pope John Paul II
By jerome lewis
Images and Pope John Paul II
As the news spread that Pope John Paul II was dying the world’s media descended on Rome with frenzy. During that time the Catholic Church drew more airtime than any other event including the coverage Terry Schaivo, a bedridden woman in a Florida hospice whose case sparked a national drama. When the news broke that the Pontiff had died, around the world followers of the faith participated in vigils and prayers as a mark of recognition to his life. Even at the Vatican, authorities sealed off St.Peter’s square from the thousands who flocked to view the body of the John Paul II. Spaniards and Poles along with their national flags traveled for more than a day in order to get to Rome. Millions of ordinary followers, heads of state as well as government officials also converged at the Basilica to pay their last respects. As global figure, Pope John Paul II was not only admired by people of the church, but also by those who belonged to other faiths as well. The question is: how was he able to achieve such prominence around the globe? And what role did the media play in shaping public opinion about the Church and Pope John Paul II?
To answer these two questions I wish to argue that over the years the Catholic Church has been able to attract millions of people to its congregation as a result of repetitive broadcasts of its images through media. According to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz in their book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History “Media events blur the boundary between the sacred and the profane. In spite of their religious character, the trips of the Pope cannot be defined as strictly Catholic events…. [Because] they reach diverse audiences where Catholics are often no more than a significant minority (207).” If one were to look at the architectural design of most Catholic Churches, there are always images on display on the stained glass windows and paintings that depict the saints from the Holy bible.
Within the Catholic Church most of their rituals are seemingly structured around the Pope. Evidence of religious rituals dates back to the earliest periods of human history, and even to pre history (Schechner 45).The media’s highlights of John Paul’s travels to 129 countries has also helped shaped him into a global figure and his journeys across the globe have indeed confirmed in the minds of many that he has been selected by God to reach out to mankind. Whenever he visits a foreign country his trips are often marked by images of him disembarking his official plane with his right hand raised, followed by his customary gesture of kissing the ground and being welcomed by children with flowers. His Easter Sunday mass to millions around the globe is also been set within a spectacle of massive crowds at St.Peter’s square and a pompous ceremony that he conducts in several languages.
The portrayal of the Pope as being bilingual reflects a perspective that he can relate to all people and not just Catholics.Dyan and Katz also believe that these events are “staged for specifically ecumenical purposes[…] to thrust shared features[and] to disregard irreducible differences between religions(208).” Dyan and Katz also say that “The Pope also uses television to vault over would be mediators between himself and his flock. No longer a mysterious presence in the recesses of the Vatican, this Pope uses his televised trips to turn virtual power into effective authority (209).”His distance from the masses around the globe does not deter people from accepting him since the media transform his image into a fixture on television sets. At that moment his voice and facial expressions become the center of attention.
Dyan and Katz also conclude that “media events magnify internal differences, personal and doctrinal, for all to see (209).” That is to say that the rituals practiced by the church are constructed as public performances and this is what the public sees via the media. For instance, following the death of Pope John Paul II, he was shown lying in state surrounded by barriers. In this way his image before a world audience marked the end of his 28 year old reign in a sense that Catholics had to grapple with the fact that Pope John Paul II was now dead. Even as the Pope lay in state, most of the events that followed his funeral were broadcast to the public. In other words people were actually glued to their television sets waiting for the Vatican to make the next move. But as the days went by the Vatican did focus on other initiatives: the election of a new Pope. During this event Cardinals were locked behind large wooden doors.
They had to read an oath of secrecy and pledge obedience to their
Dean as well as place their red birettas on the table before deliberations began. The election of a Pope is a public performance for those who assemble at St.Peter’s square. They witness either black or white smoke that rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, which indicates two things: one, a Pope has been selected or two, one has not. These rituals promote the values and traditions of the Catholic Church by use of broadcast media. The New York Times April 18 reported that “The entire pageant was televised live, a first conclave history and in keeping with the tradition of John Paul II, who used television throughout his papacy to promote the faith. Even in death, his image was broadcast as he lay in state inside St.Peter’s Basilica (Wakin, Fisher A1).” Take for instance the effects the Pope’s death had on the public. Television sets were placed in most public places including hotels and malls for the public to view the proceedings of the event and this in a sense generated public opinion about the entire episode.
Even the events that followed his death lasted almost a week on television. Each Network had its own expert who pronounced on either the Vatican, or gave meaning to the event as an expert on theology. With this in mind, the debate shifted from his life to his would be successor and also focused on whether or not a new Pope should be selected from Latin America or Africa since those areas had the largest concentration of Catholics in the world. Dyan and Katz say that ‘Media events also refer and give meaning to current events (209).”
In this case the experts and television commentators bombarded the public with historical pieces of former Popes, to the age of John Paul II, his illnesses and achievements throughout his Papacy. But as the voices rang out on the airwaves and public opinion began to seep into the talk shows, emotions began to stir as the world waited with bated breadth to see who would be the new Pope. Its was high drama for another five days as thousands flocked to the Vatican in order to be part of this spectacle.
As Schechner observed, “Because rituals take place in special, often sequestered places, the act of entering the “sacred space” has an impact on participants. In such spaces, special behavior is required (63).”The space around the Pope was indeed sacred, since the images of those who passed by his body either knelt or bowed before him followed by the sign of the cross. An example of this was when U.S. President George Bush and his wife, former Presidents Bush and Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to the Vatican to pay their respects to the Pope. Their images transformed the space into cared space. Laura Bush wore a scarf, Rice a black outfit, a color that indicates sadness and Clinton was seen in prayer for about 5 minutes. But as the authorities allowed more people to view his body the scene began to change.
As the 18,000 or so Italians shuffled by his body every hour, they could not resist the opportunity to record a piece of history with their cell phone cameras.Schechner observed that “Introducing newer technology sometimes subtly and sometimes more obviously changes a ritual. Electric lighting, microphones and more recently changes the ritual (72).”
The cell phones became central to the religious experience and in a sense to a Pope who played to the camera and a square that was filled with media crews. When the media announced that German born Cardinal Ratzinger “Benedict XVI” was the new Pope, his election was greeted by the public with mixed reactions from all quarters. In the U.S. there was disagreement over what his election meant for the American church. Some Jewish leaders hailed him for his stance on anti-Semitism while South Americans praised him for his theology. Some were scared that his doctrine was not the cure for an already polarized church that is currently faced with child sex abuse scandals. There was also some silence in St.Peter’s square as a sign of protest when his name was announced, but it would take some time for people to digest it all. Even the crowds that filled the square quickly dispersed after Pope’s short speech, a marked contrast to the thousands who remained there for hours and days when John Paul II died.
The image of the new Pope also raised questions among many as to whether he looked like a Pope. What is the image of a Pope suppose to be? And what should people expect of Pope? Pope John Paul II image was marked by his humility and the way in which he embraced other religions as well. Even during his illness he came across as a man of compassion who had great strength in his faith to carry on God’s work until the end. His strong stance against homosexuality and condom use by Catholics was a trademark of his legacy.
He also came to the Papacy at a time when communism flourished across Europe and his intervention to rouge leaders to tear down the walls of communism make him a beacon light of hope for millions who suffered under those regimes. In a sense his work transcended across the boundaries of the church and in a way turned him into a man for all the people. These are some of the features that marked his life as Pope. Although Cardinal Ratzinger had worked closely with John Paul for most of his years, it would not have been easy for him to be accepted by the masses as a new Pope just like that. It was the media that turned that transformed him into a Pope. For instance, as he was greeted by large crowds during his visit to his apartment which is located close to the Vatican. Here the crowds represent acceptance and equality.
Even his critics hailed him as a leading academic and theological visionary. They cite his stance on church doctrine, condemnation of realitivism, denunciation of liberation theology, homosexuality and feminism. His rein in on Bishops who crossed the line and brought the church into disrepute with sex abuse scandals. Mention has also been made of his role at the Vatican in the past months. He was a substitute for John Paul II at the Easter Vigil service in St.Peter’s Basilica for the ailing Pope. He read the homily for the funeral of John Paul II and celebrated the mass before the conclave began. What the Pope does and how he does it determines how he looks in the eyes of the public.
What the public sees is a scripted performance of a Pope in office. In other words not anyone can be a Pope, but anyone can be made to look like one.Schechner draws a parallel to the American Presidency which is choreographed with a teleprompter, dress and backdrops carefully designed for maximum effect (35).
From all observations, it is evident that the presence of media changes the significance of events. To the extent that the Catholic Church uses it help shape the image of the Vatican and the legacy of the Pope is testimony of its power. The media determine how Catholic rituals should be viewed by the public. The public in turn has grown accustomed to the scripted images and performances of the church, so much so in that it has become difficult for them to believe otherwise. The media create peak moments at times that carry particular meanings. The breaking news of the death of Pope John Paul II was an event that served as a symbol for the millions who mourned his passing. Even the rituals and the images that are structured around him are broadcast in sequenced to the public, which clearly illustrates the use of media by the Catholic Church in order to get its message across to its followers.
Broadcast Journalism Student
Dyan, Eliu Katz. “Media Events: The live Broadcasting of History.”
Massachusetts: Harvard, 1992
Schechner, Richard. “Performance Studies: An Introduction.”
London and New York: Routledge, 2002
© jerome lewis