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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

By Marc Fisher |  March 20, 2008; 8:17 AM ET
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This article PROVES you're BIASED!!!!!!!

Hey, somebody has to say that at least once following every blog posting, right?

Posted by: Arlington, VA | March 20, 2008 8:56 AM

More importantly, does the Pope think DC United should get a stadium?

Posted by: ACS | March 20, 2008 8:58 AM

"the Pope must remain almost above all a figure of majesty and mystery"

Majesty, si, mystery, non.

Majesty? Yes, for as you note he is the successor of Peter. Mystery? No. The mystery is the sacraments, the Trinity, etc. The

Posted by: Stephen Braunlich | March 20, 2008 10:03 AM

I am surprised that Marc's article is not whining about the lack of parking available for the Pope's visit. And how this fact means the Bush administration is somehow conspiring against Catholics by not allowing interested attendees to use certain Government parking garages.

BTW, in response to the galatically stupid (and typical) posting of "Arlington, VA" (the President of Marc Fisher's Fan Club), most of us readers who have attained education beyond high school expect Marc's liberal bias since it is obviously a prerequisite for employment at the Washington Post.

Posted by: Aaron Burr | March 20, 2008 10:05 AM

So just where is the liberal bias in this piece?

Posted by: Alexander Hamilton | March 20, 2008 1:53 PM


As far as I can tell, no one is complaining about this particular piece. If you read my posting closely I said that "most of us readers who have attained education beyond high school EXPECT Marc's liberal bias since it is obviously a prerequisite for employment at the Washington Post."

Indeed, if all of Marc's pieces were like the one from today, he would hear little (if anything) from me. However, Marc's pieces often spew misguided left-wing propaganda regarding guns, the so called "war on drugs," and politics in general and thus require me to do my part in presenting a different point of view.

Posted by: Aaron Burr | March 20, 2008 3:05 PM

What secular society? Our constitution is being attacked by the religious right (including Catholics) constantly. As an atheist, I'm bombarded with religious imagery, forced to take off work on holidays I don't give a crap about, told that ninnies will "pray for me" and according to polls, would not be able to run for public office and win.

On the other hand, I don't have to commit symbolic cannibalism every week.

Posted by: amy_e | March 20, 2008 4:10 PM


I looked again for an indication that you deem this post to show proper journalistic balance. There is none. Therefore, the careful reader is left to assume that this post exhibits the liberal bias that you have come to EXPECT from Marc Fisher -- clever use of the all-caps, by the way.

Posted by: Alexander Hamilton | March 20, 2008 4:13 PM

Will the audience at the Nats Stadium (man is that an expensive stadium for the city) be a sell-out crowd to see the pope?

How will parking work that day? I'm assuming the pope-mobile likely has a reserved spot in one of the closer lots.

Posted by: Pray for parking or congregate on the metro? | March 20, 2008 4:39 PM

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