Bringing Rome Back Home

Pope John Paul II’s death was the biggest religion story of 2005, but it unfolded thousands of miles away from North American newsrooms. Many religion writers were in Rome elbowing their way through the media circus, while others manned the desk back home, looking for ways to localize a story that went on for weeks, but often with precious few local angles beyond the usual reaction pieces. Here are some ideas for covering papal transition in 2005, 2013 and beyond.


The pageant of centuries-old – even millennia-old – traditions in Rome all can be traced back to extraordinary events of history, from the imprimatur of Emperor Constantine to the monarchical papacy of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance glories (and excesses) now on display in this post-modern world. Has the color and commentary piqued interest in Christian history? Will this topic become as popular as America’s Founding Fathers? How do history teachers from grade school to university use papal transition as a teaching moment? What do reading groups and bookstores do? And what are the most popular – and best – resources out there? John Paul biographies topped the list of bestsellers in 2005, but books on the conclave, conclave novels and movies, and hefty tomes on Christian history were also popular.

…And mystery

Has the inundation of papal coverage washed up any potential converts at the door of your local parish? It can happen, as the interest and emotion – whatever the event – draw people to learn more. Despite the recent years of Catholic scandal and crisis, 150,000 adults still enter the Catholic Church every year at Easter. Who are those people who just joined? Will others now make that pilgrimage as well? Conversely, will Catholics who were turned off by the previous pope’s policies and teachings give their old church a second look when a new pope is elected? Remember, the second-largest religious affiliation in the United States is Catholicism – Catholics make up almost a quarter of the nation’s affliated population. Also, are Catholics who do attend church being queried about their faith by the curious or incredulous? And do they know how to respond to questions about papal succession and the like? These aren’t the things that are normally taught in catechism classes. But maybe pastors and lay ministers are adapting their sermons and adult education classes for a crash course.

The Catholic-Evangelical alliance

Many converts to Catholicism have been evangelicals, another manifestation of the growing nexus between communities that have historically been antagonists. One of the greatest symbols of this rapprochement – whether cultural, political or theological – was President Bush’s presence at the 2005 papal funeral. This was a remarkable story, given that the United States was one of the last countries in the world to establish formal diplomatic ties to the Vatican. That only came in 1984, when Ronald Reagan moved ahead with diplomatic ties despite the misgivings of deeply conservative Protestants who still saw the Roman church as the embodiment of heresy. George W. Bush, who was probably considered the most evangelical Protestant ever in the Oval Office, was the first U.S. president to attend a pope’s funeral. What did this say about the relationship of these two groups? Was this a cultural collaboration? Or was there some new theological accommodation? Did this play out locally, or was this just a dialogue among leaders? Note: When he was archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla – the future John Paul II – let Billy Graham preach from his pulpit despite some opposition within the Polish hierarchy. The two remained friends.

Rites or wrongs?

The scenes in 2005 that came across the television screens and on the Internet from Rome in an almost continuous video feed sometimes seemed formalized and ritualized and alien even to many Catholics. Yet beneath all the grandiosity of the pope’s funeral and the election of his successor rested some important truths about the power and efficacy of ritual in our lives. Psychologists and sociologists of religion can testify to this, but trends in local houses of worship across the religious spectrum also demonstrate the power of ritual. A growing number of Protestant churches, in a counter-trend to past practice, have increased the frequency of communion, for example, and coming-of-age rites that resemble confirmation services or bar mitzvahs have become popular in churches and communities – even humanist groups – that would not normally be associated with the kind of display currently unfolding in Rome. Rituals for death, life and commitment are vital, and the distance between the Eternal City and your city may not be so wide.

Authority versus power

The papacy is the ultimate symbol of religious authority, and the Catholic Church often comes across as an authoritarian institution. Many Americans are confused by, or at odds with, authority – especially when it comes to issues of religion and conscience. Indeed, the issue of religious authority is not just a Catholic matter. In every church, from Episcopalians to Methodists to Lutherans and beyond, Americans have witnessed often bitter and divisive debates over how authority is exercised. This is a “think piece” but one that will affect many readers, inside and outside the Catholic world. What is the right relationship between the center and the periphery in a church? What is the relationship between the individual and the community? Between justice and compromise? How does one hold or resolve internal tension or skepticism over church authority and still enjoy one’s faith?

  • Richard Gaillardetz

    Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. He is also the author of By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003).

Latin lovers

Odd as it might seem, the media occasionally come alive with ceremonies in a dead language: Latin. In fact, very few of the cardinals gathering in the Sistine Chapel speak what was once their lingua franca. But the cardinals may be behind the curve. There are signs of a growing interest in classical languages. Certainly popular culture has spurred interest with movies such as Troy and Gladiator. And Latin was half the dialogue in Mel Gibson’s Passion. The ceremonies and liturgies surrounding the death and election of a pope in 2005 put Latin into the mainstream once again. But did it having any effect? Have classes in the classics attracted students? Or was this the last gasp of a language that is dying once again? See a Dec. 18, 2003, Economist story, “Latin Today: Roman Rebound,” and a March 23, 2004, USA Today column by Craig Wilson, “Latin revival shows everything very old is new again.”

That really old-time religion

The “It Girl” of congregational trends has long been the Emergent Church – the pulsating worship services that marry pop culture and high technology into Christian religion for Generations X, Y and Z, and beyond. It’s emotion and entertainment, and it’s really cool. But the flip side of that phenomenon is more akin to the religious tradition currently getting splashed across today’s front pages – the ancient ways of “smells and bells,” the incense and recitations that recall monasticism more than MTV. And this has great appeal, too, church experts say. Look at the popularity of labyrinths, centering prayer and Gregorian chant CDs. Books on the Divine Office (the regular daily prayer of monastics) are flourishing, and people looking for a break from the stresses of daily life are turning retreat houses into a new business for the dwindling number of monks and nuns who live in them. Fasting is in, and not just to get washboard abs. What is the attraction of this so-called “neo-medievalism”? Are people retreating into the past or integrating something old into postmodernism? The story ideas of this “alternative spirituality” – “Old Age” rather than “New Age” – are endless.

It's not just sex

So much of the commentary about John Paul focused on his stern teachings on sexual morality and against birth control, abortion and gay marriage. He was consistently tagged as a conservative, and questions centered on whether his successor would loosen up on these issues. What was also expected to remain the same were positions embodied in John Paul’s powerful statements on social and economic justice. In speeches and three of his 14 encyclicals, the pope spoke with great force – and criticism as strong as that on communism or against sexual freedom – about economic injustice and rampant capitalism and materialism. In that context, he would have been a raging liberal in American politics. Those statements made him a hero in the developing world. Why do those statements often get short shrift in the U.S. media and culture and among Catholics themselves? Is the assimilation of this immigrant faith affecting Catholic receptivity to this countercultural message of social justice – what has been called the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret”?


Hispanic papacy - or Italian restoration?

Latinos are a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population and the fastest-growing segment of the Catholic Church in America. They may account already for 25 percent of the nation’s Catholic population, and the church is increasingly Hispanic. This trend extends across the country. How is the Catholic Church responding – or not? There are not nearly enough Spanish-speaking priests, and Catholicism is losing Latinos to evangelicals and Pentecostals. How is the Catholic Church integrating Spanish-speaking immigrants and hanging on to the Hispanic members it has? Is liturgy changing to meet the new demands?

Something about Mary

The death of a pope who was so completely dedicated to Mary – his papal motto was “Totus Tuus” (from Totus Tuus Ego Sum, Latin for “I am all yours”) indicating his total devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary – put another bright light on a figure who has for centuries divided Christians. Now she seems to be an area of common ground, and not just for Protestants and Catholics but also with Muslims, who revere Mary of Nazareth.

The news cycles on

Yes – after the death or resignation of a pope, it is all pope all the time. But once the new pope is duly installed and profiled, religion writers will come dragging back to the newsroom, exhausted, with notebooks still full of great stuff but with editors looking for a change of pace. Even the pope story will cool. So start thinking about stories to do after the conclave and installation of the new pope, and start collecting some string on them so they’ll be easier to put together on an extra cup of coffee. For example, relations with Eastern Orthodoxy will likely be a priority for the new pope. It would also be good journalism to give the Orthodox, Evangelicals and other religious groups some time in the spotlight, too.

Devotion and dollars

Even before Pope John Paul II drew his final breath, vendors selling rosaries and candles and pope key-chains began setting up stands outside the gates of the Vatican. And the demand for memorabilia of this beloved pope – for the faithful to have something tangible to remember him, perhaps in hopes that he will be named John Paul the Great – grew steadily. Religious stores and Catholic booksellers (some of which have set up condolence books for people to sign) sold out of photographs and posters of the pope; gift shops at museums and churches have seen people rush in to buy everything from ornamental wooden Polish eggs to prayer cards. Pope John Paul II’s final book rose up the best-seller chart on, and sales of souvenirs from John Paul’s many trips (Pope John Paul II bobble heads, pope-on-a-rope soap) were suddenly hot items on eBay. For retailers, it’s a sensitive line to walk: meeting the demand and honoring the memory of popes without seeming ghoulish or mercenary. And there’s always more to come as soon as a new pope is named – churches are placing advance orders for white-and-gold bunting, and who wants to bet there won’t be commemorative Conclave T-shirts?

Virtual ritual

While millions swarmed to Rome to pay respects to John Paul or to attend his funeral, there was a virtual wake on the Internet rivaled only by the digital outpouring over the death of Princess Diana. Chat rooms and websites were full of commiserating mourners, and those who made it to Rome often provided cell phone or email commentary for the grieving back home who couldn’t make it. This April 8, 2005, International Herald Tribune story, “The Cellphone as Church Chronicle, Creating Digital Relics,” shows how mourners at the wake were using technology – video phone in this case – to memorialize the event for friends and family thousands of miles away. This is a great opportunity to localize the pope story, and it is a way to revisit the broader story of spirituality and the Internet, and how it is changing notions of religion and communal practices.

Makeover at the top

How will a new pope affect your local Catholic community? The most direct way is by appointing a new bishop, or by transferring the current bishop of your diocese to another, probably larger, diocese or archdiocese. This could happen more quickly than many expect, experts say. For one thing, a new pope likes to put his imprint on the church with a few high-profile appointments. That has a ripple effect, as bishops are moved around to back fill for the men moved up the ladder. Also, bishops must submit their resignation at 75 (they can stay on if the pope chooses, up to 80), and papal experts note that in the last decade of his reign John Paul was appointing older bishops. Some say he appointed men he knew for a long time; others say he did not want to tie his successor’s hands. Either way the average age of U.S. bishops went from 59 in 1978, the year John Paul was elected, to nearly 67 in 1999. It is probably higher today. How old is your bishop? If he is not nearing retirement age, is he likely to catch the new pope’s eye – and get promoted? Be prepared to prognosticate when the new pope comes out on the balcony.

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