Papal visits now follow a well-established course. Before the pope arrives, the host country’s media are full of reports asserting with prophetic sadness that, though the pontiff is personally popular and may on that account be well received, the Catholic faithful nonetheless reject his opinions on a range of issues from abortion to women priests. Then the pope arrives and is greeted by much larger crowds than expected. He delivers some powerful sermons to which only a few dissident theologians object. Finally, he returns to Rome amid ecumenical applause, leaving behind a sense that some souls have been uplifted and challenged toward goodness.
This pattern was established in the papacy of John Paul II. Because he was a rare prelate with an instinctive ability to exploit modern media to preach the Gospel, John Paul’s successful pilgrimages could be subtly marginalized as an expression of celebrity as much as of religion. But their deeper impact suddenly became clear when the pope lay dying: Vast numbers of pilgrims, not all of them Catholics, camped out in St. Peter’s Square to pray and sing hymns. Some had specific reasons for being there: One Jewish Chicagoan told the cameras that he wanted to thank John Paul for healing the breach between Jews and the Catholic Church. But most people in the square seemed to have been drawn there by an admiring respect for the pope’s evident holiness. They loved him for it. Maybe that love was the first step toward holiness on their part. If so, subsequent steps would have to include the cooler and more bracing virtues.