Pope John Paul II, who died Saturday, was as much of a global pop-culture icon as Michael Jackson in his heyday and as great a communicator as Ronald Reagan in his.
Unlike the insular, closed-off pontificate of his predecessor, Paul VI, this unlikely pope from Poland was from the very beginning of his reign expansive, entertaining and acutely aware of the power of the media to shape and convey his message.
As for showmanship, John Paul II instinctively realized that the Roman Catholic Church and its rituals were innately theatrical and that by dominating that stage, his message would be most artfully and most forcefully conveyed.
And from the beginning, he tailored that message for an increasingly Third World rather than exclusively Western audience, and he targeted not so much middle-aged Catholics but rather the very young.
John Paul II quickly undertook the travels that would make him the world’s most high-profile frequent flier — and to master, converse in, even occasionally joke in, an array of languages.
He instantly won over the Italians with his first remarks in their language, “se sbaglio corregetemi” (“If I make a mistake, correct me”), which he famously mispronounced when he first uttered it.
Like Reagan, John Paul II was blessed with a charisma that charmed the press and with a savvy about how to use his gifts that may go back to his youth as an amateur actor and a playwright in his native country. (His play “Our God’s Brother” was eventually turned into a film.)
At the outset of his 26-year reign, the pontiff chose as press secretary stately Spanish journalist and medical doctor Joaquin Navarro-Valls, believed to have had a determinant hand behind the scenes in ensuring that John Paul II’s natural starlike persona shined to maximum effectiveness.
Whether fielding press questions on thorny theological or political issues, issuing medical bulletins or making sure cameras were set up at the best angle, Navarro-Valls helped move the papacy to the forefront of the modern media age.
In another but eerie similarity to Reagan, the pope became an even more sympathetic international celebrity when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The media circus that swamped the trial of the would-be assassin, Ali Agca, and thereafter the ubiquitous popemobile made the recovered pontiff even more of an icon.
The pope’s surprise trips to the ski slopes in Italy — during one, he was dropped by helicopter onto the powdered snow — left indelible images of the human side of the Catholic leader and the vigor of his papacy.
The Rome press corps swelled in those days with journalists who could almost always find something to write about the pope and his policies.
Variety reported on the pope’s decision in 1982 to set up the so-called Vatican TV Center, established to produce audiovisual materials of a religious nature for worldwide broadcast consumption. Center now possesses and controls the largest archive of images of the pope in the world.
Documentary “John Paul II — The Untold Story,” drawing largely on material shot by Vatican TV Center cameramen and promising glimpses of the pope’s more private side, will be sold at the upcoming Mip TV market: Audiovisual products have become important in spreading the faith — and as a revenue stream for the Roman Catholic Church.
The pope eventually made his mark in the publishing and music worlds by finding time to pen eight books (the latest, “Memory and Identity,” is a current bestseller in Italy) and to put together a CD of his homilies interspersed with Church music. A host of musicians, including Bob Dylan, were invited to perform for the pope. He also enjoyed movies, holding occasional screenings at the Vatican and periodically commenting on the values (or lack thereof) in the current cinema or on the TV screen.
(It was never quite clear whether the pope approved of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” his comments about which were ambiguous at best. That was surely one of the few times that the message he wished to convey did not get through.)
During the 1980s, the pope seemed to time astutely his pronouncements about and his trips to Eastern Europe to further the tears in the Iron Curtain. John Paul II and his inner circle arguably managed his political and social message more adroitly than any pontiff since the Medicis during the Renaissance. Equally if not more than Reagan, Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II’s birth name) helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.
But perhaps most important for the Church, this pope realized the importance of young people to his cause — and tried to relate to them in ways not dissimilar to how presidential candidate Bill Clinton engaged young people. He may never have watched it, but John Paul II must have known what MTV stood for.
In the Jubilee year of 2000, the pope inaugurated World Youth Day, and more than a million young people flooded into St. Peter’s Square to take part. He lured the young even while holding ultraconservative views on issues relevant to them, such as birth control and abortion.
Some of those views and some of the recent stances of the Church have alienated segments of the North American faithful — especially the Vatican’s seemingly begrudging admission of sexual abuse by priests.
In that respect, the ailing John Paul II arguably misread the cues or failed to mount a successful PR campaign to get the Vatican’s position across.
Still, after 26 years, most of the world is still mesmerized by this pope, as witnessed by the massive media presence that has descended on the Eternal City.
His will be a tough act to follow.