Combining moral authority, communications skill and theatrical talent, Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to become a media superstar.
In the four decades before his 1978 election, the papacy had gradually become more visible. Pope Pius XII appeared in newsreels. Pope John XXIII, "Good Pope John," and Pope Paul VI, the first modern pope to travel outside Italy, including the United States, arrived in the early decades of the television era.
"But then, what you get with John Paul II is this tremendous escalation, partly because of all these trips," said the Rev. John O'Malley of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. "All at once, you've got this figure who's making these spectacular visits which bring cities to a halt."
John Paul knew how to get across his moral message with consummate skill, and in many languages. "One would maybe not call him one of the great orators of the 20th century, but compared with most political leaders, he's a wonderfully effective rhetorician," said O'Malley, who was asked before the pope's death to evaluate him as a media figure. "He has a sense of drama."
That sense of drama came from his love of theater as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland. From his time under the Nazis, and later under communist rule, he also learned the importance of mass media.
"He came from a world where the media was against him and used against him and the church," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That helped him understand the media's crucial role. "He's written on that several times, and he indicates that he now fully understands that the media basically form the modern consciousness."
In his 1990 encyclical, "Redemptoris Missio" (The Mission of Christ the Redeemer), John Paul compared the media to the Areopagus, the Council of Athens, where St. Paul preached.
"The first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications, which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a 'global village,' " John Paul wrote. "In particular, the younger generation is growing up in a world conditioned by the mass media. To some degree perhaps this Areopagus has been neglected."
John Paul did not neglect it.
After his election, he continued to embrace the media, producing works of his own, including a 1994 best seller, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," his responses to questions on faith and life, and a 1996 memoir of his priesthood, "Gift and Mystery." He also allowed his voice, in prayers and homilies, to be used on a 1999 CD, "Abba Pater," meaning "father" in Aramaic and Latin. And, during his papacy, the Vatican launched its own Web site, www.vatican.va.
But his primary media mastery was not as an entrepreneur. It was as a spiritual leader, endowed with a compelling personal biography and the ability to convey his message clearly.
"He's kind of rewritten the script," O'Malley said. "Popes have spoken out on moral issues and to some extent on world issues, but nobody like this man."