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NEWS FEATURE: New TV show, biography put Pope John Paul II in media spotlight _ again

c. 1999 Religion News Service UNDATED _ Over the past two decades Pope John Paul II has become one of the most visible personalities in human history, thanks in part to the mass communication media. During the next two weeks, this globe-trotting pope will be explored in two major new media projects: an evocative 2 […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Over the past two decades Pope John Paul II has become one of the most visible personalities in human history, thanks in part to the mass communication media.

During the next two weeks, this globe-trotting pope will be explored in two major new media projects: an evocative 2 1/2-hour documentary airing Tuesday Sept. 28, on most PBS stations (check local listings) and a nearly 1,000-page biography written with the unprecedented assistance of the pontiff and many of his closest friends and top advisers.

Although the two projects present diverging assessments of some of the pope’s positions _ particularly his critiques of modern culture, his pronouncements on the role of women in the church, and his criticism of liberation theology in Latin America _ both suggest that Karol Wojtyla may well be the most consequential Roman Catholic leader since the Protestant Reformation.”John Paul II is a man of extremes and provokes extreme reactions,”says Helen Whitney, the award-winning producer of”John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,”a surprisingly rich and moving documentary airing on PBS’ “Frontline” series.”John Paul II has renovated the papacy for the 21st century (and) has made an untold impact on hundreds of millions of individual human lives, one by one,”says George Weigel, a respected Catholic thinker who interviewed the pope 10 times while writing”Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II,”which will be published Oct. 5 by HarperCollins.

Whitney, who won Emmy and Peabody awards for”The Choice ’96,”her portrait of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, traveled the world conducting hundreds of interviews for”The Millennial Pope.”She compiled a visually poetic, intellectually invigorating and emotionally touching portrait of Karol Wojtyla, a complex man who combines deep mysticism with more earthly activities like athletics _ leading one scholar to call him”a bishop with balls.” Whitney’s documentary begins with the pope’s upbringing in strife-torn Poland and concludes by assessing his potential legacy. In between, the program illuminates the pontiff’s important role in his homeland’s democracy movement as well as his love for the Jews, a subject that makes up the lengthiest section of the program.

The film casts a critical eye on some of the pontiff’s more controversial stands, including his unwavering opposition to birth control, abortion and the ordination of women, and derides his”repression”of democratic movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua _ the narrator says the pope”stumbled,”and his stern reaction to liberation theology”revealed a rigid side of his character.” John Paul II, says Whitney,”is a leader we cannot ignore, but often cannot follow.”Her documentary, though, is no heavy-handed diatribe, but instead challenges individuals to wrestle with issues of faith and doubt while forcing them to answer this urgent question: Is this pope out of touch with reality, or are we?

People who cover John Paul II often focus on his secular activities, portraying him as a powerful politician or an ecclesiastical executive but not primarily a man of faith, says author Weigel, a former Catholic seminary professor who is a senior fellow of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. Not surprisingly, those who follow this approach wind up with”a statesman who happens to say Mass occasionally.” Weigel’s”Witness to Hope,”while not an”authorized”biography, tries to give readers an”inside”look at”the Christian convictions that make John Paul II the man he is.”Rather than focusing on the pope’s public acts and pronouncements, Weigel begins with the core beliefs that inspire the pontiff’s actions.”You can’t understand Karol Wojtyla unless you understand him as, first and foremost, a disciple,”says Weigel, who was given unprecedented access to the pope as well as previously unpublished Vatican documents.”Witness to Hope”explores the complexities of faith in ways even an exceptional film never could, and Weigel does a masterful job of demonstrating the internal coherence of the pope’s views, showing how his critiques of consumerism, Sandinista politics and”the culture of death”all spring from the same Christian concern over a crisis of ideas the pope witnessed firsthand as an underground activist fighting Poland’s Nazi occupiers.

Pope John Paul II is”a thoroughly modern man,”writes Weigel, while documentary producer Whitney sees him as a man at war with the 20th century itself. In their own ways, they both may be right.

DEA END RABEY