Canonisation reflects exemplary lives of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII
Opinion: Media does not reflect complexity of papal story
‘This weekend as two popes are canonised, there will be a number of predictable media narratives. It has been declared that the canonisation of Good Pope John is overdue (true), while the canonisation of Pope John Paul is a disaster, because of his lack of action over sexual abuse, and his innate conservatism.’ Photograph: Michael Kappeler/EPA
Both John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were popes in the media age. Newsweek ’s veteran religion writer Kenneth L Woodward claimed that by the end of the Second Vatican Council there were nearly as many journalists as bishops in Rome.
By and large, the media adored John XXIII. He was one of 13 children of an Italian peasant. He was witty, self- deprecating and warm-hearted, and he favoured opening up the Catholic Church to the modern world. But covering Vatican II posed challenges. Journalists had no immediate access to the proceedings, which were in Latin.
So they relied heavily on the periti , the theological advisers who accompanied the bishops. Woodward, in an article in the online journal First Things, (bit.ly/1n9XoxF) says events were therefore mediated first through the viewpoints of the periti, and then through the journalists.
He says: “But strictly speaking, I would argue, journalists do not communicate or merely pass along what they have seen and heard. Journalists make things. What they make are coherent narratives, just like historians or town gossips do.
“But unlike historians and gossips, journalists produce their stories under the external requirements of time and space and according to the prescribed rules and conventions specific to their respective media.”
One of the most influential narratives was the idea of progressives versus conservatives, and it persists although, as a political metaphor, it completely ignores the core mission of the church.
Vatican writer John Thavis wrote about how the difficulty of finding a “line” on Pope Benedict contributed to his unpopularity among journalists. They quickly saw the “God’s Rottweiler” tag simply did not fit. Instead, he was a shy, gentle, introverted intellectual. Thavis recounts how various frames were tried and abandoned until a flurry of excitement arose with Benedict’s Regensburg speech.
He was then characterised as the pope who “stood up” to Islam, a culture warrior, but that had to be abandoned when he prayed in a mosque.
When Benedict was declared pope he returned to his apartment and packed his own bag. When Francis did something similar it was considered radical and innovative.
But then, Francis had the media at hello, or at buo na sera , when he greeted the crowds in St Peter’s Square. Not that he was aiming for media popularity but his instinctive mastery of the symbolic gesture is perfect for a media age.
Yet Francis too has been subject to a narrative that does not fully capture how truly he is a “son of the church” although he has made no attempt to conceal his allegiances. In short, coherent narratives can provide important shortcuts to understanding, but they do not always work when the picture is not simple or easily summed up.
As two popes are canonised, there will be some predictable media narratives. It has been declared that the canonisation of Good Pope John is overdue (true), while the canonisation of Pope John Paul II is a disaster, because of his innate conservatism and his lack of action over sexual abuse.
It’s a coherent narrative but one that does not admit of complexity or even begin to understand what the process of canonisation is about.
Canonisation is an official recognition by the
church that someone has lived an exemplary life in which the grace of God has been so active as to radically transform the individual. Saints are not considered to be perfect, or without flaw.
Did Pope John Paul have flaws? Undoubtedly. Did he fail to deal well with allegations of sexual abuse? Yes, he did, and that had catastrophic consequences.
Does that negate everything else that he did and was? Surely that would be a profound injustice?
Like Pope John, John Paul was a man of prayer, who radiated a sense that God was at the centre of his life.
Saints are a living contradiction of the currently popular idea that success consists of fulfilling personal dreams and having a comfortable existence. John Paul had immense suffering in his life, from losing everyone close to him by the age of 20 to a debilitating illness at the end of his life.
But like Pope John he achieved greatness not through personal ambition or ability but through being able to let go and be guided by a power greater than himself. In an age of cynicism, it might be embarrassing even to suggest it but it is more true than many of the simple narratives.