I have been struck by the number of people who became genuinely excited this past week when they heard that I was going to Washington for one of the papal events. Two months ago, even fairly knowledgeable Catholics at a religious education convention seemed at best dimly aware that Pope Benedict might be paying a visit to the United States.
Within the last week, everyone from travel agents and sales clerks to distant and vaguely religious relatives express great interest in the Pope’s “2008 U.S. Tour.”
I’d like to think that this is a sign of the impact that the Holy Father will have on an attentive nation, but it probably tells us more about the modern media’s “star making machinery.” Of course the Pope, any Pope, has a celebrity status that is rare in the world. This celebrity status in turn drives a kind of media blitzkrieg when the opportunity arises, because, well, celebrity sells.
In the last week, is it possible to listen to the radio, watch the television, or open a newspaper without hearing, seeing or reading a breathless analysis of the Pope, American Catholicism, recent polls and projected outcomes of this history-making visit? It’s been three years since we’ve seen this kind of frenzy.
Commentators like The National Catholic Reporter’s ubiquitous John Allen teletransport themselves like characters out of the recent movie “Jumper” from studio to studio as they explain What It All Means.
Allen is joined by Father Tom Reese, George Weigel, Dave Gibson and a host of other “experts” who are suddenly the catch-of-the-day. Illumined by the blaze of the Pope’s celebrity supernova, we experts become temporary celebrities who can be divided into Dante-esque layers of media exposure: Clambering from local print and electronic news media up to Catholic television and radio, then National Public Radio and its offspring, on to the cable news networks and then, the media Paradiso to which all talking heads must aspire, precious 90-second interviews on the morning and evening network news shows and perhaps an op-ed piece in the Times-Post-Journal Trinity.
It is a remarkable sight, this media frenzy, and it can be appreciated for what it is: an opportune moment to bind Catholics together in a virtual community as our shepherd, one of the greatest theologians alive today, is given a bully pulpit to speak to everyone in this country with cable and ears to hear.
Of course this moment will pass. The media will quickly move on to other breathless events: Larry King and Krista Tippett and Brian Williams will seamlessly shift their spotlights to the Pennsylvania primary, or the next wave of bad economic results, or whatever the crisis du jour will be on April 21.
Then the responsibility for making the most of this papal visit will fall upon the rest of us: pastors and DREs and parents and parishioners. The real value of this trip – in fact, any lasting value it is likely to have – will be found back in our neighborhoods and parishes, in our conversations with our neighbors, in the personal opportunities for renewal and witness that will inevitably arise – without cameras or microphones nearby. In other words, the ultimate success of this papal visit is up to us, and we must be prepared to make the most of it.
-- Greg Erlandson
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing