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Vatican Debates Whether Next Pope Should Be Media 'Superstar'


Pope John Paul II
The late Pope John Paul II's skills as a communicator were bolstered by what became, during his pontificate, one of the world's best-run media machines. As Roman Catholic cardinals ponder whom they should choose as his successor, they recognize that John Paul II will be a tough act to follow and are wondering just how important it is for the pope to cultivate the media.

John Paul's early love of the theater contributed to his remarkable ability to communicate with crowds and exploit the enormous media interest that his activities aroused all over the world.

The late pope's sense of showmanship and a fondness for symbolism led him to use gestures to make statements, such as when he left a note at Jerusalem's western wall in the year 2000 expressing sorrow for the suffering of Jews at Christian hands.

Even in the final days of his life, John Paul allowed Vatican television crews to capture him trying but failing to speak to the faithful on Easter Sunday.

Vatican-watcher James Walston, a professor at the American University in Rome, says John Paul II broke with the traditional way the Vatican had always looked at the media.

"John Paul II undoubtedly revolutionized the use of media in the Vatican," he said. "Before his reign, the Vatican was much closer to the Kremlin in its news management techniques."

Whether he was kissing the soil of a country he visited for the first time, hiking in Italy's mountains during the first years of his papacy, or struggling publicly against the physical ailments that befell him in old age, John Paul II knew what moved hearts and minds.

Vatican officials say that, among the cardinals' concerns when they meet in conclave next Monday to choose the next pope, is how important effectiveness as a communicator should be when measured against all the other qualities they will be seeking in a new leader.

Given John Paul's lengthy pontificate, the cardinals may be inclined to choose a slightly older pope, in his middle to late 70s, in order to avoid another long reign. And personal charisma, says Professor Walston, is not necessarily a job requirement.

"Possibly, they might be looking for someone who doesn't have it, because if they are, as seems to be the present wisdom, looking for somebody who will have a relatively short reign, they don't want a mega-star who might take the church in a direction in which they're not sure they want to go," he said.

The new pope will face a multimedia world that hardly existed when John Paul was elected in 1978. Not only has the Vatican adapted to the times with its massive television coverage of the pope's activities. It has also set up its own website. But professor Walston says many of the more traditional prelates in the Vatican are still leery of television and cyberspace.

"Genies which have been let out of the bottle - they have been reasonably well controlled so far," said James Walston. "I cannot see how anyone, even if they want to control the media, can do so."

John Paul II was a charismatic, globe-trotting pastor who paid little attention to the church bureaucracy. Some conservatives are now arguing that the church needs an administrator as leader. But others say that, after John Paul II, the pontiff cannot just be a chief executive officer of the Roman Curia. They say the church, and the world, expect something more of the pope.