Jesus commissioned the disciples to proclaim his word "upon the housetops."Roman Catholicism's disciple-in-chief, Pope John Paul II, skillfully remolded those work orders to fit modern times.
"In today's world, housetops are almost always marked by a forest of transmitters and antennae," the Pope remarked on World Communications Day 2001. "To proclaim the faith from the housetops today means to speak Jesus' word in and through the dynamic world of communications."
John Paul, a trained stage actor conversant in a dozen languages, was a natural for that dynamic world. And he proceeded into it with gusto, using the mass media as his global pulpit.
"John Paul II was the first pope to understand the television era, the first one who mastered the medium, who could handle a microphone, who was used to improvising, who wasn't afraid of performing in public," Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi wrote in their biography, His Holiness.
On the day before his installation as pope in 1978, John Paul signaled that things would be different when he conducted history's first papal news conference.
His reign spawned the Vatican Television Center, which documented his every public move for worldwide media distribution. There was the sophisticated Vatican Web site, www.vatican.va, and the daily news briefings.
There were even CDs featuring John Paul praying, chanting, and delivering homily messages in five languages, set to music that included pop, classical and New Age.
The Pope would talk about the power of the media to shape human relationships, and he would call the mass media "a friendly companion for those in search of the Father."
He saw the media as a way to get out his message of human rights, religious freedom, economic justice, and strict adherence to Catholic discipline and teaching, particularly the bans on birth control and abortion.
The camera was a loyal friend, even as his handsome face drooped and his athletic physique withered, even as his suffering from Parkinson's disease became more acute. He always came across on TV "as deeply religious, utterly sincere and wittingly knowing," said Terrence W. Tilley, professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton.
With his many pastoral visits outside of Italy, he offered an image of - "going out, not staying in," said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, also a professor of religious studies at Dayton. Zukowski once worked for John Paul as a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Like a famous exhibit embarking on a museum circuit, the so-called pilgrim pope drew media attention wherever he traveled.
Kissing the ground as he stepped off the plane in a new country, John Paul eagerly starred in much emotionally charged footage, from Fidel Castro's Cuba to once-Communist Eastern Europe.
John Paul standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000 was an image that needed no words, said Penn communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jamieson, who wrote her dissertation on papal communication, called the gesture a symbolic repudiation of "the view that the Jews killed Christ, and a repentance of the Catholic Church's inadequacy in defending the Jews against Hitler."
The pontiff was once filmed holding a baby with AIDS, an act Jamieson called "rhetorical jujitsu" because it avoided conflict and reached out to the other side. She said the image conveyed the church's compassion for those suffering from the disease without sanctioning homosexuality.
John Paul also reacted publicly to most major world events. On Sept. 12, 2001, he devoted his weekly public Mass to decrying the terrorist attacks, even breaking with tradition by switching over to English when expressing his condolences to Americans.
Often during his globe-trotting, at least until his infirmities restricted him, John Paul would hug a baby, make a humorous aside, stroll through the streets - gestures that endeared him to his flock.
Even as his health declined, John Paul never lost his ability to work a crowd, even from the Popemobile. In his Wednesday gatherings outside St. Peter's Square, he would delight his audience when he swayed to the music and sometimes sang along, if weakly.
"It's not the Beatles," Tilley said of the trademark papal charisma, "but there's a pretty strong reaction to him."
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