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Days of History and Holiness: Reflections on April in Rome

The death and election of a pope are naturally global events, of interest far beyond the Catholic Church itself. But the death of Pope John Paul II was a global event also in the sense that the whole world was able to watch it unfold as it happened. Not only was the pope's death historic because of the stature of the man himself, but also because this first “media pope” was the first to die in our new 24/7 media environment of cable news and the Internet.

The sheer demand for news dominated the Roman skyline and streetscape for all of April, as makeshift studios were created to accommodate the thousands of journalists in town. And as one would expect in the marketplace of commentary, an equally vast supply of pundits appeared to offer their take on the unfolding events. Some of what was offered was ill-informed, but much was also knowledgeable and insightful. The Acton Institute was a key contributor—of the latter type, one hopes!

Acton's staff has a deep knowledge of the Vatican in general and the life of Pope John Paul II in particular. Before I joined Acton last January, I worked for five years at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace where I was able to see firsthand many Acton staff engaged in the intellectual life of the Holy See. That background proved essential during those April days when the world's attention was fixed on Rome.

It was a real joy to spend the month with Father Robert Sirico, who was an expert commentator for the BBC, covering both the funeral of John Paul and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Fr. Sirico, like other Acton staff, was constantly at work helping viewers understand what was really going on behind the chatter. Indeed, on the very day that Benedict was elected, Fr. Sirico was asked whether the cardinals were deadlocked, as they had failed to produce a new pope on the first three ballots! Always prepared, Fr. Sirico rattled off the comparative lengths of 20th century conclaves, by which standard the conclave of 2005 was normal. In fact, it turned out to be very short—as became clear that very afternoon.

Joining Fr. Sirico was Dr. Samuel Gregg, an author of a book on John Paul's thought, who came to Rome and did commentary for various cable outlets, as well as some work with the media from his native Australia. Back in the United States, Acton's Dr. Kevin Schmiesing and Rev. Jerry Zandstra were also interviewed by major broadcast and print outlets. Here in Rome—having barely settled into my new job—I also did a number of interviews on CNN, the BBC, Fox News, and even a few Asian networks.

Acton staff particularly stressed John Paul's contribution on questions of liberty in the political and economic sphere. Some attempts had been made to cast John Paul as something of a welfare-state advocate, railing against free markets and global trade. The truth is much different, and Acton's media appearances helped to point out that John Paul was staunch defender of both political and economic liberty.

One such interview took place with an especially ignorant British anchor on CNN. I think he first thought the “liberty” the Acton Institute promoted had something to do with abortion or some other type of reproductive matter, which would have added yet another tiresome voice to the chorus complaining about John Paul's “rigid” stance on sexual mores. But once I told him we focused mainly on economic issues, he turned his guns on me from another direction, incredulously asking whether anyone in his right mind could call the pope a capitalist or a free-trader.

I patiently suggested that the interviewer may want to read the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus , which of course he had never heard of. It should go without saying that the pope was no ideologue, but he did promote a certain vision of the market economy, one based on greater human freedom and responsibility and other basics concerning our God-given human dignity. While we cannot simply presume the approach Pope Benedict will take on economic questions, it's highly probable he will continue what John Paul began. He was, after all, the long-time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and would have reviewed encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus .

Many of the questions that came my way were of a personal nature, owing to the fact that I was baptized and confirmed by Pope John Paul in 1996, during the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. It was a particular honor for me to pay homage to the pope while his body was lying in state, nine years to the very day of that event. Doing so provided me a brief moment to say goodbye and thank you. Given that the pope's deepest legacy will consist of the effect he had on individual souls, it was understandable that people with stories like mine were sought out.

Another of my interviews on CNN took place the day after the pope died. On my way to the CNN stand, I ran into a priest friend who told me that whatever I was going to talk about, remember to mention Our Lady. I was asked to comment extemporaneously on the Regina Caeli prayer at the end of the Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday. I spoke on the meaning of that prayer as well as the Angelus during which the pope would address the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square. From there the discussion shifted to the importance of Sunday, the role of women and the laity in the Church, and my previous experience working for the Holy See at the United Nations, where we often battled on behalf of poor countries who were otherwise vulnerable to the more powerful secular ideologies found at that world body. The interview was a great opportunity to talk about the faith to a live global audience that happened to include simultaneously my family in Bangalore, India and Flint, Michigan!

“The world is different because of John Paul,” wrote Religion & Liberty 's new editor, Father Raymond de Souza, in his daily column for Canada's National Post. “But the world is only different because he changed people. History is not impersonal. History, because it is the story of God's mysterious love for His creation, is only personal. How to measure the impact of Pope John Paul II? There are many ways, but it is only in the realm of the spirit that it will be truly known, calculation being the number of souls set afire, of hearts touched, of lives converted.”

Fr. de Souza described the period as “days of history and holiness.” All of us on hand in Rome were well aware that we were peripheral participants in a great historic moment. All acknowledge that John Paul changed history and left the world more free.

It was great to hear, especially early in the month-long coverage, so many young, enthusiastic, orthodox, and generally appealing voices of the John Paul II generation—we formed a sort of on-the-air “army” in service of the pope and the Church! Unfortunately, the old media finally figured us out as much too positive and hopeful, so they eventually returned to form, relying on their tired, often “Catholic” advocates of homosexuality, abortion, women priests, and the like.

I suppose it was natural for those accustomed to looking at everything through the lens of secular politics and the labels of “conservative” and “liberal.” At the same time, what was going on there was a religious event, and in the end it was John Paul's holiness that drew the crowds more than his teachings on this or that issue. It was simply a blessing to be there.