Saturday, March 05, 2005

Pope's reliance on the media

Now as Before, Pope Relies on Media for His Message

Ian Fisher

New York Times 4 March 2005

VATICAN CITY, March 3 - Several years ago, an American cardinal visiting Pope John Paul II here asked if a hometown television crew could film the two together.
"The pope looked at him and smiled and said, 'If it doesn't happen on television, it doesn't happen,' " Archbishop John Patrick Foley, the Vatican's chief of communications, recalled. "He is aware of the power of the media."
Now a tracheotomy has left the pope barely able to speak, but that awareness is no less evident. The pope himself, according to reports, asked to be wheeled to his hospital window last Sunday, appearing for less than two minutes but reassuring the faithful, via a huge bank of television cameras, with a wordless brush over the wound on his throat.
It was a performance fully in tune with the healthier times of his 26-year-old papacy, during which he focused less on the daily administration of the Roman Catholic Church, by most accounts, in favor of spreading its message through trips, television and even the Internet, farther and more vividly than any other pope could have.
But a week after he was hospitalized for a second recent time, many questions are rising: Can a pope who now cannot speak well, who is unlikely to keep up his grueling schedule of public appearances, continue forcefully to advance the church's message? Can a kind of virtual papacy - electronic images of him combined with messages read by others or posted on the Internet - substitute for his own once-commanding voice on issues important to the church, like war, poverty or abortion? And if so, for how long?
With so much sympathy for the ailing pope, 84, the public voices of skepticism are few, even if they echo many private worries inside the church administration and among the faithful.
"In the short term, he might be able to hold some kind of press conference in which he is able to write out his message," said the Rev. Michael A. Fahey, a Jesuit and theology professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin. "But I don't think that is really going to help meet the long-term needs of the church."
"From my point of view, the speaking is only part of the whole problem," he said, adding that he deeply admires the pope's courage in illness. "He really doesn't have the same vigor and ability to really administer and to provide the kind of on-site leadership necessary."
But others argue that John Paul's strength has always been that of a communicator, and that he does not need words to convey the role he has carved out in the twilight of his papacy - to carry a spiritual message of dignity in old age.
"I think I can live with a pope who communicates rarely, and not verbally," said Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic lay movement based in Rome. "We are in a situation that is new, and exceptional, but also a situation that existed in the past. At St. Peter's Square, before microphones, what did the faithful hear? They heard very little."
"It can seem a disappointment, it can seem less efficient, but the message of Wojtyla is the message of a real man, because illness is a part of life," he added, using the pope's surname.
Many Vatican watchers point to two recent events around the pope's illness as possible windows to the future: When John Paul left the hospital on Feb. 10 after spending nine days there in treatment for flu and breathing problems, he did so not in an ambulance but seated and waving behind the clear glass partitions of his popemobile.
Then last Sunday, amid much concern after he was admitted a second time three days earlier, he appeared at his window at the Gemelli Hospital complex in Rome, making the sign of the cross and touching the spot on his throat where a tube had been inserted to help him breathe.
"He was saying, 'I can still communicate with gestures,' " said Giuseppe De Carli, chief of Italian public television's division for covering the Vatican. "He's clearly saying that he can be pope from the hospital, that he can be pope being silent."
A few miles away at St. Peter's Square, his words were read by an aide, as a still photograph of a younger and healthier John Paul radiated from huge outdoor television screens.
Mr. De Carli traces much of the pope's effectiveness as a communicator to his early days as an actor in Poland.
"He looks straight into the camera; he dominates the masses, especially young people; he interrupts himself to wait for applause," he said. "He understands pauses, silences, timing. He plays on this. It's his charisma."
Even if the pope is not speaking publicly, his aides certainly are doing so for him. Throughout both recent hospitalizations, a stream of proclamations and appointments have been issued in his name. And top Vatican officials have provided a steady beat of largely positive, if brief, reports about his health.
On Thursday, his chief spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, told reporters here that the pope's health continued to improve, that he was engaged in church business and that he was making progress on therapy to help him speak and breathe better. Dr. Navarro-Valls said, however, that it was uncertain if the pope would be discharged from the hospital before Easter, on March 27.
If the pressures are high on John Paul to reassure the faithful, it seems partly because of the expectations he himself raised as he transformed the public face of the papacy. Pressure on earlier popes to appear in public or on television was small. In the last few months before his death in 1978, experts note, Pope Paul VI rarely left the Vatican.
But after being chosen pope, John Paul II moved to change the ancient office's relationship with a new mass media that could quickly project itself around the globe. He met with reporters and answered their questions, as he did with groups of the faithful - and to forgive the man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who had tried to kill him in 1981.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican radio, said the pope was attuned enough to the media that he held meetings over lunch or dinner with aides after every trip, dissecting the news coverage.
"He reflects on, and if necessary learns from, how things went to improve next time," he said. "I found this to be an extraordinary lesson in how he takes his role as communicator seriously."
The aim was to project the message of the church and to spread its influence, and he has not shied away from those possibilities on the Internet. In 1995, the Vatican began a Web site (, and in 2002, he released a long document on the use of the Internet to further the church's work.
In January, only a week before he was hospitalized the first time, he released another letter on communications in which he urged: "Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank 'among the marvelous things' - inter mirifica - which God has placed at our disposal."
But there has been much criticism, from reporters and some Catholics, about the lack of openness at the Vatican, one of the world's least penetrable bureaucracies, as opposed merely to its media savvy. That criticism has continued during John Paul's illness over his exact medical condition and to what extent others are making decisions for him.
As the effects of his Parkinson's disease have taken their toll, the pope has traveled less and has has much trouble speaking. In the last year or so, he has generally read only part of his public messages, leaving the rest to an aide. He is also generally said to rely on a handful of top aides to run the church's business day to day, though Vatican officials say he remains engaged on the most important questions.
Tad Devine, a top Democratic Party strategist and a practicing Catholic, said, however, that this most recent phase of the pope's illness could still be an important moment in this papacy. He said that the world's news media were focused on the pope around the clock, even if that focus amounted to a papal death watch, and that sympathy for him was great.
"The fact that he is in the spotlight so much gives them the opportunity to convey their central message about life and death, about their vision of morality in the world," he said.
"We'll wait and see how they do it," he added. "But if the issue is, 'Is the pope's developing illness going to suffocate their message and their opportunities?' my answer is no. The opposite is true."
Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting for this article.


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