A Celebrity Pope

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It's been 70 years since the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin contemptuously asked French Foreign Secretary Pierre Laval: "How many divisions does the pope have?"

If the answer wasn't clear when communism fell 15 years ago, it should be now following the funeral of Pope John Paul II on April 8. No funeral in history has been watched by so many people, made possible by television. But even on the ground, record numbers of people descended on Rome to be present at what they considered one of history's most significant events.

The deceased himself had inadvertently made it possible by triggering the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the iron curtain, thereby enabling hundreds of thousands of his fellow Poles to travel to Rome. This would have been impossible 261/2 years ago.

The pope, it turned out, had more divisions than the communists!

Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, all played a role in bringing down the communist system that divided Europe for over four decades. Tributes to the pope by world leaders made it clear that the division of Europe likely would still be a reality if John Paul had not been elected pope in 1978.

But it wasn't just his political achievements that were remembered at his funeral. The man himself was greatly loved and respected by hundreds of millions of people around the world, by non-Catholics as well as members of his own church. Even the irreligious had respect for the man and his firm refusal to compromise on his beliefs. There's a lesson there for churches that have watered down their traditional beliefs and values.

Many of those in Rome to mourn the pope commented on how he was a very loving man. Having started out as a parish priest in his native Poland, the pope learned the importance of serving people. Not all popes have been this way. A famous predecessor, Pope Pius XII (1939-58) was famously aloof and arrogant. Catholic historian John Cornwell noted in his book on Pius XII, Hitler's Pope, that popes who rose up through the pastoral priesthood were the best popes throughout history; while those whose career was in the Vatican bureaucracy were the bad popes, the most political, the most self-serving. Serving as a priest or pastor in a parish, working with the lay members of the church in their daily struggles, is a humbling experience. Perhaps there's another lesson there for all churches.

As U.S. News & World Report put it: "As a pastor and bishop in Krakow for many years, he came to Rome with a passion for ministry and little interest in the administrative chores required of a pope. Unlike two of his 20th century predecessors, Paul VI and Pius XII—both of whom immersed themselves in the managerial details of running the Vatican state—John Paul II devoted his energy to travel and diplomacy and to teaching and praying for his flock. 'He saw himself as a pastor to the world,' said the head of the Jesuit order" (April 11, 2005, p. 29.)

An age of celebrity

A third observation while watching the funeral and the weeklong events that preceded it, was in the memories that it brought back of another funeral, just a few years ago. Media attention following the death of Princess Diana was as pervasive as it was following the death of Pope John Paul II. The media all over the world covered both their funerals in minute detail. The world needs heroes, role models, people to look up to. Princess Diana and the pope were very different people, but hundreds of millions looked up to them. In an age of celebrity, they were two at the top.

A few days before the pope's death, Boston Globe editor Stephen Heuser was standing in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, along with 70,000 others. Writing a Vatican City diary for The New Republic magazine, Mr. Heuser observed: "All around me, people craned for a look at the 84-year-old man with Parkinson's at the center of the whole thing. Theologically, this seemed troubling. It's true that Christianity promises redemption at the hands of one suffering, dying man, but that man is not supposed to be the Pope" ("Final Curtain," April 11, 2005, p. 38).

Later, in the same article, Mr. Heuser asks the question: "Should the Pope have tried to rein in his own celebrity? Is this need for adulation a human flaw in the Pope, or is it in us?... Of course, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, with about one billion adherents worldwide, the Pope is perhaps fated to be a popular icon. Nevertheless, I have the sense that the increasingly kinetic power of fame is something the Church will have to wrestle with after John Paul II's successor takes the stage in St. Peter's Square."

The 19th-century British cardinal, John Henry Newman, observed: "It is not good for a pope to live twenty years... he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without meaning it" (quoted in Hitler's Pope, p. 3).

Television contributes to this cult of celebrity, encouraging people to look up to and even worship those promoted on the small screen. This was true of both Diana and the pope. The pope used television to reach masses of people around the world. As Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift put it on PBS's McLaughlin Group, "The Pope was one of those people who believed that if it didn't happen on television, it hadn't really happened" (April 10, 2005).

A Catholic bishop interviewed outside St. Peter's shortly after the announcement of the pope's death remarked that this particular pope had gone a long way to restoring the power and prestige of the papacy, an institution which has certainly had its ups and downs throughout history. The church took such a battering in the 19th century that cardinals had the pope declared infallible in 1870, giving the papacy even greater power and authority than it had previously enjoyed.

More recently, following World War II, the papacy was at another low point as people around the world accused Pope Pius XII of collaborating with the Nazis and acquiescing in the Holocaust.

In the aftermath of World War II, atheistic communism had also taken control of half of Europe, resulting in the church losing control over millions of people's lives. A few years later, the church took a further battering with the sexual revolution of the '60s. Most Catholics in the Western world rather hypocritically looked up to John Paul II, while rejecting his conservative views on sex and morality.

"Papal prestige today is very high," wrote Peter de Rosa in his 1988 book Vicars of Christ, adding: "In this century [the 20th], pontiffs have achieved world renown" (p. 29). Looking back at history, he observes: "Not all popes have been saints; many were hardly Christians. Until Pius IX lost the Papal States in 1870, popes were seldom even liked. They were often hated and feared" (p. 30). The Papal States were composed of a large territory in Italy that was ruled like any other European nation.

De Rosa is honest about the history of the Vatican when he says: "The greatest of the papacy's sins, the source of most others, was the abuse of its immense power. It is strange to think that the person from whom it was allegedly derived lived and died without any power at all" (p. 30).

What future for the church?

The combination of a more powerful papacy and the contemporary cult of celebrity could be very dangerous. History shows that not all popes have been like John Paul II. As Peter de Rosa observed:

"Among the popes were a large number of married men, some of whom gave up their wives and children in exchange for the papal office. Many were sons of priests, bishops and popes; some were bastards; one was a widower, another an ex-slave; several were murderers, some unbelievers; some were hermits, sadists and sodomites; many became popes by buying the papacy (simony), and continued their days selling holy things to rake in the money; one at least was a Satan-worshipper; some fathered illegitimate children, some were fornicators and adulterers on a grand scale; some were astonishingly old, some even more astonishingly young; some were poisoned, others strangled; worst of all were those who worshipped a granite God. As well as these, many were good, holy and selfless popes, and a few martyrs" (p. 30).

When asked by His disciples what would be the sign of His coming, Jesus Christ warned them to beware of false religious leaders. "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5 Matthew 24:4-5 [4] And Jesus answered and said to them, Take heed that no man deceive you. [5] For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
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The apostle Paul warned the people in his second epistle to the Thessalonians: "Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 [3] Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; [4] Who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sits in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
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Jesus Christ warned that this leader and others like Him could even deceive those following the true Christian faith. "For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24 Matthew 24:24For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
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A false prophet at the end of time will have "worked signs in [the] presence" of the Beast, the leader of an alliance of European countries that were a part of the original Roman Empire (Revelation 19:20 Revelation 19:20And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that worked miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.
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). Revelation 13:8 Revelation 13:8And all that dwell on the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
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says, "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."

This false religious leader will be universally looked up to and worshipped.

The events surrounding the funeral of Pope John Paul II help us to understand the impact of television in focusing on celebrity, in building up somebody to be the recipient of public adulation and even worship.

We should be very careful not to be deceived by any man, but rather to follow only Jesus Christ. WNP