The frequent flyer John Paul II, who visited about 130 nations, including seven trips to the United States, brought the papacy to the people and had an unparalleled impact on the world. The Vatican Press Corps traveled with him and many became fans as they saw him address physical deprivation in the Third World and spiritual poverty in the First. I was among the reporters.
As a journalist in Rome and later as an organizer of papal visits in the United States and Ukraine, I saw John Paul firsthand. He welcomed media because the television cameras carried him into homes around the world. When he entered an arena, he’d wave to the assembled crowd. Next he’d wave to the bank of cameras, knowing that the modern media transported him to millions more beyond the stadium. They all were his people. He was a handsome man with a stage presence honed by experience as an actor. He was made for television.
He invented World Youth Day, which since 1985 has become a regular papal event drawing millions of young people to meet with the pope. No other leader ever thought to convene the world’s youth and he met with them in Rome; Buenos Aires; Manila; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; Czestochowa, Poland; Toronto and, most spectacularly, in Denver in 1993. John Paul prayed and bantered with them. Gustav Niebuhr, then of The Washington Post, noted the spirit in Denver when he reported it was a “Catholic Woodstock” that was “replete with virtues and none of the vices” of the landmark Woodstock music event of 1969. When John Paul II looked at young people on his visits, he saw not the church of tomorrow but the church of today. He tapped into idealism, and the youth responded.
Through travels and media presence John Paul showed the church to be a player on the world political stage, a force that could reach well beyond the Vatican’s home in Europe. He knew the power of speaking at the United Nations in New York and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He recognized that real strength lies in prayer and that peace will come when people of all creeds recognize they are one under God.
People have heard about saints for centuries. This beatification, which is a step toward sainthood, raises up someone many feel they knew. Sainthood is indeed possible for very human frequent flyers who play to the crowd and know their connection to God is all that matters.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.