John Paul II: What is the Lead?

Theologian George Weigel needs a Global Positioning System transmitter on his wrist so journalists can keep track of him.

As author of the 1008-page Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, his life has been hectic since the news flash that the shepherd of the world's one billion Catholics had been rushed to hospital, gasping for breath.

Weigel said a network news reporter recently called and asked, “'Where are you going to be tonight, in case something happens to the pope?' Well, I said, 'I'm going to church and I'm going home and eat dinner with my family. That's what we do on Ash Wednesday. Is that OK?'”

Reporters are trying to cover their bases. The panic also may have been fueled by another reality. This pope's life is impossible to capture in a few dramatic images, a three-minute sound-bite blitz and a sentence or two about the length of his tenure (second longest ever) and the number of nations he has visited (125 so far).

Journalists must ask: What is the lead on this story? Thus, I contacted a circle of commentators and asked that question. Here is a sample of what I heard.

• Catholic Internet scribe Amy Welborn said she would focus this question: “Has this pope “permanently redefined the papacy?” Will it be possible for future popes to be anything other than “a big-thinking world traveler?” Many Catholics wonder if “management-related issues have suffered” with this emphasis on travel and media.

• Steven Waldman, CEO at, began with: “Pope John Paul II, who perhaps did more than any other person to end communism….” Who can forget when Lech Walesa signed the labor agreement at Gdansk shipyard, incarnating the Solidarity movement that helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet empire? Walesa used a pen topped with an image of the Polish pope.

• Baptist scholar Timothy George, part of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together coalition, referred to both John Paul's hunger for church unity and his writings, especially Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Nevertheless, George said he would lead with: “The pope has advocated the sanctity of life in a century suffused with the smell of death, whether that is the stench of the Holocaust ovens or the abortion clinics or innocent victims of terrorism and military conflict.… He is certainly the greatest pope since the Reformation.”

• editor Helen Hitchcock emphasized the pope's “Theology of the Body” reflections — gathered from Wednesday public audiences — on what it means to be human, male and female, and how this affects marriage, children, the elderly, the unborn and the sick.

Inside the Passion of the ChristWhile liberal Catholics complain about a “reign of terror,” Hitchcock said many conservatives also have concerns about John Paul's legacy. “Some believe that he has been very strong on proclaiming the truth, but weaker when it comes to defending the truth.… After all, he appointed all of our bishops. They are his. That is the reality.”

• Russell Chandler, the retired religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, said he isn't ready to write a lead yet. After all, this pope has appointed all but three of the 120 cardinal-electors who will choose his successor, including waves of red hats from Third World nations.

“I think it is not clear that the so-called John Paul II era — the Pope for the World — is going to be over,” said Chandler. “Pope John Paul II is dead. Long live the pope. Is this era…going to continue? Watch for the smoke signal at the Vatican chimney.”

Meanwhile, Weigel is convinced reporters do not need to rush to judgment. Based on his personal contacts, he is convinced that the pope's health is actually quite sound for an 84-year-old man who is suffering from arthritis and Parkinson's disease.

“This whole idea that the next breath of wind that comes along is going to blow him over is just wrong,” said Weigel. “The truth of the matter is that he is going to have his ups and his downs. We may see six or seven of these episodes in the next year or two or longer. So are we going to go crazy every time? That is going to get old fast.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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