TV Eye

Published in Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

More eloquent than the comments of theologians and historians was the rebroadcast of the archive material of John Paul II’s visit in 1979.Greeting children in Clonmacnoise.

More eloquent than the comments of theologians and historians was the rebroadcast of the archive material of John Paul II’s visit in 1979.
Greeting children in Clonmacnoise.

Too soon to say?
The legacy of John Paul II

RTE News Special, 2 April 2005
Pope John Paul II Obituary, 3 April 2005
RTE Radio 1
The Man who was Pope, 3 April 2005
Bowman’s Saturday, 9 April 2005

By Eamon O’Flaherty

The length of the pope’s final illness and the regular bulletins from the Vatican in the last week of his life meant that the media response was well prepared when the news of his death was finally announced on the evening of 2 April. Reactions to the pope’s death were varied, but the overwhelming response across the globe was one of praise for his achievements. This grew in the interval between the pope’s death on Saturday and his funeral the following Friday as it became apparent that he had evoked an extraordinarily powerful response from people all over the world. The Irish Times produced a twelve-page supplement on Monday 4 April devoted to all aspects of John Paul II’s pontificate, in addition to five pages of coverage inside the newspaper, and this was typical of the near-saturation coverage by the media. The third-longest pontificate in the history of the papacy was also one in which the first non-Italian pope for nearly five centuries had travelled to most countries in the world at least once and had been seen by countless millions of people.
Remarkable claims have been made about John Paul II’s influence on world history, the most notable being that he was the main architect of the downfall of communism. Biographies of the pope broadcast on most channels drew a connection between his experience of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the communist regime there, which had given him a special concern for human freedom and dignity in the face of tyranny and oppression. There were dissenting voices—Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times were stridently critical of the authoritarian and patriarchal aspects of John Paul II’s pontificate, but the general response was adulatory and even reverent. The Irish response was nuanced by the fact that the pope’s death offered an opportunity to reflect on the changes that had taken place in Irish society in the years since his visit in 1979, within a year of his election.
The four-hour news special on RTE 1 in the immediate aftermath of the pope’s death showed evidence of considerable advance planning. Much of the programme was taken up with a series of tributes from the great and the good but, despite the inevitable solemnity of the coverage, there was an impressive amount of time devoted to critical analysis and discussion of the pope’s influence and legacy, much of it in refreshing contrast to the hagiographical treatment that clogged the airwaves for the week after his death. Among the politicians and senior clergy offering predictably pious reactions to the death of a great and charismatic leader were quite a number of expert voices, mostly from within the Catholic Church, who offered a more critical reaction.

At the shrine of Our Lady at Knock.

At the shrine of Our Lady at Knock.

It was interesting to hear how the generally positive comments from other religious leaders were balanced by evidence of a much more divided response from Catholic commentators. Eamon Duffy, the Cambridge- based historian of the papacy, drew attention to the degree to which John Paul II had been an authoritarian pope, controlling the Catholic Church from the centre at the expense of the collegial ideals of the Second Vatican Council. It was clear from the analyses offered that his election in 1978 came at a time of extreme turbulence in Catholicism, with a church divided between liberal and conservative factions. Revd Michael Collins, a biographer of John Paul II, argued that the pope saw his main task as one of restoring order and reaffirming traditional doctrine. The dissenting view, expressed by commentators such as John Cooney, Tom Inglis, Enda McDonagh and Gina Menzies, stressed the negative aspects of these achievements. Cooney, like Duffy, was critical of excessive centralism and the pope’s tendency to preach rather than to listen. McDonagh suggested that the pope’s popularity in the Third World was also accompanied by a failure to understand the enormous challenges implicit in modern civilisation.
This was a theme common to many of the critics of John Paul II’s pontificate. It was also a theme particularly relevant to the Irish experience of the past 26 years. The pope’s exceptional ability to dominate the media—perhaps reflecting his earlier vocation as an actor—meant that he was often more popular in the world than he was in the church. The result was an increase in the disaffection and alienation of many Catholics in Western Europe and North America. When the pope addressed these Catholics—as in his 1994 encyclical Veritatis Splendor—it was to call on them to return to the orthodox religion that he championed rather than to attempt to meet the challenge of promoting a rapprochement of Catholicism and modern civilisation. The hard line taken with dissident clergy and theologians, the rejection of clerical marriage and the ban even on discussion of the ordination of women, along with denunciations of modern capitalism, all tended to drive a gap between the Catholic church and its traditional European heartland. Ecumenism, one of the great hopes of the post-conciliar church, made little progress during this pope’s reign.
The implications of this for Ireland were made clear by some commentators, albeit diplomatically. The rapid and largely unexpected transition to a secular society in Ireland largely took place during the reign of a pope who seemed determined to reverse the changes promised by Vatican II. More eloquent in this respect than the comments of theologians and historians was the rebroadcast of the archive material of the pope’s visit in 1979. The enormous crowds of people who assembled at every point on his itinerary and the image of a church at or near the height of its power and influence in Irish society were evocative of nostalgia for a vanished era—despite the fact that these events are very much part of living memory. It is, of course, too soon to judge the pope’s impact on history, but the contrast between the one million people present in the Phoenix Park in 1979 and the 10,000 who attended the memorial service on 8 April 2005 was stark and, perhaps, eloquent.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.


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