Twenty-seven years ago today, on Oct. 16, 1978, Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla walked out onto the world stage. From that moment onward, he was known to us as Pope John Paul II. This youthful, athletic pope took the world by storm and the media responded to him in an extraordinary way, right from the beginning.
Last January, just prior to his hospitalization, John Paul sent out a strong message to the media, underlining the power of the pen. Words, he wrote, can "bring people together or divide them," "forge bonds of friendship" or "provoke hostility."
He said: "Instead of building unity and understanding, the media can be used to demonize other social, ethnic and religious groups, fomenting fear and hatred. Those responsible for the style and content of what is communicated have a grave duty to ensure that this does not happen.
"Indeed, the media have enormous potential for promoting peace and building bridges between peoples, breaking the fatal cycle of violence, reprisal and fresh violence that is so widespread today."
For three months this past winter and spring, the world was inundated with words, stories, and profoundly moving ceremonies from Rome -- images that helped us recall and evaluate this charismatic world leader's life and mission. John Paul was a bestseller in life and also in death. And people the world over watched -- for days at a time. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, John Paul let the whole world see what he went through.
Throughout his nearly 27-year pontificate, John Paul taught us that communication is power. He told us to use that power wisely. The Pope said communicators, both within and outside the church, must apply in their own lives those values and behaviour that they are called to teach others. The communicator is not only one who practices his work, but someone who "lives" his work. Communicators must be witnesses of values that are good for society.
As the curtain was about to fall for the last time for John Paul the Great Communicator this past April, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made him waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. In fact, the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed. It was then, in the passion of Karol Wojtyla, that the world saw what authentic communication was all about.
John Paul taught us that there is much more to the Church and the papacy than preaching, speaking, writing, greeting people and travelling -- although he certainly did enough of all of that. He communicated through spontaneous, symbolic actions that were often more eloquent than some of his speeches, homilies and encyclicals -- especially through his final moments on the world stage.
Up to the moment of his death -- and even after, Pope John Paul II was bringing people together in peace and in love. We had in him a brilliant teacher, pastor and model of goodness and humanity.
He began his historic service to the world with words that would become the refrain of the next 27 years: "Do not be afraid!" And if anyone knew about fearful regimes and situations, he did in his lifetime. Would that many of us in the Church and in the media world take these words to heart!