Papal tributes pour in

Posted: Apr 06, 2005 12:00 AM

I went to bed shortly before midnight on Friday but found myself awake, less than two hours later, once again glued to the television. The lack of news on the Holy Father's condition convinced me nothing was imminent, but still there was the desire to keep a silent vigil for him, which I did throughout most of the night. How fortunate I was to have Fox, CNN and MSNBC for companionship that lonely night, and how grateful I am to those journalists, far too many to number, who quietly reported, with such powerful dignity for days on end, the passing of John Paul II.

On Sunday, CNN anchor Aaron Brown declared that the pope "does provide a kind of moral and human balance to all of the other pressures that culture presents, and Pope John Paul did that aggressively. He did it eloquently at times. And he did it often. And he touched Catholics, or non-Catholics, who didn't seem to matter alike in that way."

 "It's not that he played to the camera," said Wyatt Andrews of CBS. "His gift was to play past it. Perhaps, with the exception of Christ himself, no one reached the flock with greater impact." I'm sure the pope would wince at the comparison and ask for CBS to drop the "perhaps," first in deference to the many holy and martyred popes, but mostly in insisting that Christ is the Exception. But that's OK; we know what he meant.

 Time's Nancy Gibbs eloquently wrote for many. "The last glimpse of him high above the square became the latest in an album of images he left behind: a kiss on the tarmac in each new city; a smile lit by love and certainty; a white robe stained red by a would-be assassin's bullet, and the public forgiveness that followed; a challenge thrown down before prisoners and presidents, sinners and saints to heed the highest calling of their hearts." That's so good you could frame it.

 In their tributes, the (mostly) secular media can most easily grasp the pope's political triumphs bringing his moral witness to bear on the dissolution of Soviet communism. It's telling that they are remembering his idealistic vision of a better world, this being a vision they routinely thought and stated before the Evil Empire's fall was a pipe dream, even a dangerous and belligerent idea. But that's OK, too. What they are now reporting -- and more importantly, how they are now reporting it -- almost demands that celestial music consistently heard in the background of television reports. The world is mourning this profound loss. Journalists are feeling it as well.

 Some reporters noted not just his impact on politics, but inside the Church, inspiring not just a deeper commitment to the faith from Catholics, but conversions to Catholicism. Writing in Newsweek, Andrew Nagorski stated, "I'm convinced John Paul II will go down in history as one of the greatest popes ever, one whose intense spirituality, intellectual brilliance and sheer physical stamina are beyond dispute." More than one pundit predicted, unequivocally and uncritically, that he will soon be renamed John Paul the Great, as surely he will. 

 To those who complain about "overcoverage" of this historic pope -- and how easy it is for a cable news junkie in this age to feel oppressed and burned out by a major news story -- we can only hope that most people realize that this man's life and works are more consequential and deserving than the big cable-news celebrity extravaganzas for the untimely deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. or Princess Diana.

 In its many hours of coverage, the news media signaled the respect they hold for this pope in spite of the great differences they had with him on important social and religious issues. He was, unabashedly, the "Holy Father" in their reports, and in their eagerness to explain the greatness of this man, they turned to countless Catholic priests, bishops and theologians for elucidation. For all their respectful attention to Church teaching and philosophy, they deserve the gratitude of the Pope's supporters, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

 The sad occasion of losing this spiritual giant does have the benefit of causing the world's media to turn away from the novelty of the next second and look back at the vast history of the Christian church, to ponder eternal questions of God and not just the latest twists in the Michael Jackson trial. Let's hope it's an occasion for many people who have lost touch with God to take an opportunity to get reacquainted. For all that the media have brought us to see, to read, and to ponder, America's millions of supporters of the pope can only say: Thank you.