The Papal Visit: Celebrity Vs. Spiritual
When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington next month, he will ride around town in the famous Popemobile, speak to the faithful at a spanking new baseball stadium, and meet the president at the White House--the sort of acts we've come to associate with visiting pop stars, sports heroes and politicians, all celebrities of one sort or another.
But of course the Pope is something quite different, and that's where things get a bit complicated. Archbishop Donald Wuerl stopped by The Post for lunch the other day and discussed, among other things, the conflicts that the Pope faces as he tries to meet his responsibility to shepherd hundreds of millions of Catholics around the globe while also going through this phase of life as one of the best-known figures on the planet.
In our celebrity-drenched culture, fame brings with it a certain sacrifice of privacy and of dignity, yet the Pope must remain almost above all a figure of majesty and mystery. Yet the most beloved popes of modern times have been those whose humanity broke through to people of all cultures, and that message has been communicated largely by the Vatican's increasingly sophisticated approach to mass media.
So a touring pope is a rock star of sorts, even as he must operate on a different plane altogether. "He's a celebrity in a very unique area," the archbishop of Washington says, "a voice for religious faith."
Do the trappings of celebrity in some way diminish the pope's authority, I asked.
"That is a real possibility," Wuerl says. But it's also true that "he comes with such a focused message and it's clearly not focused on himself. He's come really to be a voice and a spokesman for a message."
The clash between celebrity and representative of one of the world's oldest and largest faiths is especially clear in this country, and in this city. "In a secular society, the church is trying to be faithful to the spiritual," Wuerl says. Even though the Catholic Church has seen its membership numbers decline in many parts of the United States, the archbishop says he believes that as young, lapsed or disaffected Catholics grow into adulthood, they start to wonder how to reconnect with the faith of their childhood.
"Ultimately, it's the recognition that there is something there in the church that speaks to their innermost needs and that connects them to God in a way that they cannot be as an individual," he says.
If this pope is perceived not so much as someone who is reaching out to Catholics to broaden the church's appeal , but rather as Pope John Paul II's Defender of the Faith, a man who spent a good portion of his career trying to pull the institution back to a more rigorously traditional foundation, Wuerl cautions that Benedict's former position posed a different set of challenges and obligations than does the role of pope.
"One of his responsibilities as defender of the faith was to throw a flag if somebody went out of bounds," Wuerl says. "He did that as a servant of the pope. Now that he is pope, what is he doing?" Well, the archbishop notes, this pope devoted his first encyclical to the subject of God and love, and his second to the quest for hope.
In Washington, Wuerl expects the pope won't be issuing any harsh edicts or other judgments on the character or wayward tendencies of the American church or even of its liberal Catholic colleges. Popes don't generally break much news on pastoral visits. But of course the sifters of tea leaves will be hard at work looking for symbolism in any and all of the pope's speeches and gestures. He is, after all, both the Vicar of Christ and, well, a celebrity.
See you at the ballpark.
Please join me today at noon for Potomac Confidential to discuss this and any other topic here on the blog or in the column. We'll be at washingtonpost.com/liveonline
By Marc Fisher |
March 20, 2008; 8:17 AM ET
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