Politics & Policy

A Great Communicator

One of Pope John Paul II's important lessons.

“If it doesn’t happen on television, it doesn’t happen.”

That quote is attributed to the recently departed Pope John Paul II. The pontiff, to an unprecedented degree, was a media pope, making it an integral part of his ministry. Like his partner in ending the Cold War, Ronald Reagan, John Paul was a Great Communicator in his own right. The Polish people know this well: They were inspired by his encouragement and example to form the Solidarity movement that ended the Evil Empire’s grip on their country.

John Paul was indubitably grateful for the gift of the media. Earlier this year, he wrote: “We give thanks to God for the presence of these powerful media which, if used by believers with the genius of faith and in docility to the light of the Holy Spirit, can facilitate the communication of the Gospel and render the bonds of communion among ecclesial communities more effective.”

Knowing his appreciation for media makes the skewed coverage of his papacy all the more frustrating.

On a funeral-week episode of MSNBC’s Hardball, former altar boy Chris Matthews asked his guests, “What’s got to be the priority for the next pope?”

“He’s got to reach out to women,” Maryland Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend advised. “Talk to us about women,” former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo pleaded with the not-yet-named successor of Saint Peter. The two Catholics, to the glee of their host, were of the mind that the recently departed pope was more Neanderthal than feminist.

But let’s go to the videotape, so to speak. In a 1995 letter to the women of the world, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”

Throughout his papacy John Paul wrote consistently and abundantly about the “dignity and vocation.” Quite frankly, contrary to the Kennedy/Cuomo suggestion, the next pontiff is going to have a hard time beating his record on that front.

The spin on the Catholic Church as an authoritarian patriarchy that does not get the modern world–America in particular–is nothing that would surprise John Paul, perhaps watching from a satellite dish above.

In fact, in his final months the pontiff advised his flock: “Those individuals in the Church community particularly gifted with talent to work in the media should be encouraged with pastoral prudence and wisdom, so that they may become professionals capable of dialoguing with the vast world of the mass media.”

The advice is not restricted to Catholics. Anyone within the sound of my editorial “voice” has access to media. The editor, yes. But, the reader, too. Communication is power. Use that power wisely. And, not to be too obvious, but: Use it.

John Paul lived to see the age of the blogosphere (though I never confirmed he bookmarked NRO–a rumor, I confess, I started myself, here) and addressed it, at least in a general way. His 2005 Apostolic Letter “The Rapid Development” speaks not only to the moguls, editors, anchors, and writers, but to every man and woman with access to a pen and paper to write a letter to the editor, and an Internet connection to e-mail or blog.

Some of the loudest and highest paid might get your story wrong–even if you’re pope. But, as he was known to say, “Be not afraid.” Prudently get your message out and it has a shot at bearing fruit, despite obstacles (heck, John Paul lived long and prospered, despite being faced from the get-go with the tyranny of Nazism and then Communism). Hiding your message will do no one any good, after all. Like the mustard seed in that New Testament parable, you must sow to reap.

To paraphrase the voice in the cornfield that gets Kevin Costner to work in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. On so many topics, Pope John Paul II put the splendor of truth out there. And even though he’s no longer here to churn it out, we’ll keep reading it–in his letters, speeches, books, and online. He left the world with some mighty tools for action on a variety of fronts.

Call him the activist pope–how’s that for a message the right and left can get behind?

Speak out against injustice. Don’t just sit at home and complain. Get your message circulating, smartly, clearly, and truthfully.

And, hey, you never know, people might listen. And a wall might even fall now and again.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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