The Duke of Vatican City?

All kinds of people have, during the past decade or two, voiced all kinds of complaints about the state of journalism as practiced in our mainstream media. Many of these complaints are even accurate.

One of the most interesting, to me, is the complaint that the writing in American newspapers and wire services has become too plain and ordinary. This criticism is often made by people in journalism, especially advocates of “literary” or the new old New Journalism (or whatever that movement is called these days). This is an interesting criticism, since another school of critics will note that we are living in an age in which opinion and advocacy writing is threatening to swamp hard-news journalism, in large part because opinion is cheaper than actual research and reporting.

The basic question: At what point does colorful, creative writing cross a line and become editorializing? In other words, one scribe’s colorful metaphor may be another’s linguistic slap.

Consider, for example, the following passage in the New York Times report about the rites that moved Pope John Paul II “one step closer to sainthood.”

Benedict beatified John Paul II, declaring him “blessed,” meaning that he is able to be publicly venerated. He also greeted Sister Marie Simone-Pierre, a French nun who said that she recovered from Parkinson’s disease after praying to John Paul, a cure that Benedict had declared miraculous. An additional miracle is required for canonization, the next step after beatification.

An estimated 1.5 million people turned out for Sunday’s celebration, Italian authorities said. Many camped out overnight and crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks to be near the festivities.

During the Mass, a tapestry of John Paul based on a 1989 photograph was unveiled from the balcony of Saint Peter’s. It showed him with a twinkle in his eye and a slightly wry smile, the John Wayne of the modern papacy, both tough and tender.

OK, let’s save for another day an in-depth discussion of the reference to Sister Marie Simone-Pierre — that she simply “said that she recovered from Parkinson’s disease.” The process of investigating such a claim is way more complicated than that, as I am sure Times editors are aware.

Also, this story says John Paul II’s papacy was 26 years long. Wasn’t that 27 years?

No, I am fascinated by the out-of-the-blue John Wayne reference.

I, too, was struck by the image of John Paul II that was prominently featured in this Vativan rite, since was a striking reminder of what the vitally young, robust pontiff looked like before the waves of illness he faced as an elderly man. In the end, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease claimed him.

I am also aware that, as such, the John Wayne metaphor cannot be “wrong” or “inaccurate.” It is what it is, a metaphor offered by the writers to create an image in the mind of the reader.

So what do you, as readers, think of this one? Was John Paul II more of a Duke Wayne or, oh, a Cary Grant? A Polish Jimmy Stewart? Does there need to be more of an intellectual component in the DNA of this metaphor? I mean, at least the Times didn’t call him the Ronald Reagan of modern Catholicism. I wonder if that was considered.

So, does the image work for you? Does the mitre fit?

But here is the most important question: What do you think that this image actually says?

PHOTO: The only image I could find of John Wayne wearing interesting headgear, in an event linked to a Catholic sanctuary.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Could it be because John Wayne was born Marion Morrison and changed his name as part of his profession? :-)

    I’ll leave it to others to explore how the two men were similar and different.

  • Julia

    Interesting metaphor.

    JPII was an actor with a group presenting patriotic plays to preserve Polish culture before he entered a secret seminary.

    JPII was a rugged athlete who camped often in the mountains as a young priest while ministering to young people while Poland was controlled by the Communists.

    JPII snuck away to ski while Pope with nobody the wiser.

    Rather than red shoes, JPII wore heavy hiking shoes or boots. A priest I know says that JP would sometimes walk up the Janiculum to the North American Seminary close to St Peter’s to watch soccer games on TV with the seminarians – putting his clunky shoes up on the coffee table and drinking beer with them.

    The Duke fits much better than Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or even Reagan.

  • Julia

    More on the rugged side of John Paul II. Don’t know how athletic John Wayne really was, but he did have the aura of a physically fit man.

    “We left at nine in the morning, in Father Jozef’s car, so that the Swiss Guards wouldn’t get suspicious,” wrote Dziwisz, referring to Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, who is today the papal nuncio, or representative of the Vatican, in Poland.

    As the vehicle left the pope’s residence at Castel Gandolfo, another Polish priest in the passenger seat “pretended to read a newspaper in order to hide the Holy Father,” who was sitting in the back of the car with Dziwisz.

    Once they reached the ski resort of Ovindoli, the pope acted “like just another ordinary skier,” wrote Dziwisz.

    “He was dressed like everyone else: ski suit, hat, goggles. He stood in the queue just like everyone else, although for security reasons one of us stood in front of him and another behind him.

    “He took the lifts with a ski pass. It seemed unbelievable that nobody recognized him. But then who would have thought that the pope could go skiing just like that?”

    A skiing competition for priests in Poland named for JPII

    Vatican life has its protocol-and Vatican officials are not known to enjoy surprises. It was therefore with some astonishment that they greeted Pope John Paul II’s pronouncement, just seconds after his inauguration as the 264th successor to St. Peter and Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, that “I will ski again when they let me.”

    The Pope, at 58, is an excellent skier-those who have skied with him call him the “Daredevil of the Tatras”-who has skied for most of his life but did not take up the sport seriously until age 30. His favorite ski haunt is Kasprowy Wierch in Poland, the peak above Zacapone where a wrong turn could send an inexperienced skier bodily over a sheer drop into Czechoslovakia. Hala Gasienicowa-called the Valley of the Caterpillar because of its zigzag terrain-is the Pope’s favorite ski run.

  • str

    I actually quite like the metaphor, provided of course that it’s used only this once.

    What struck me was strange wordings like “meaning that he is able to be publicly venerated” – is it the writer’s logic or his languge that’s out of order here?

    A proper way of saying this would be “his public veneration is now allowed”. Since it is even shorter, there’s room for the note that it is allowed in certain regions (Rome and Poland) and not yet globally.

  • R9

    I think between the Pope as John Wayne, and priests’ skiing competitions, we have the setup for an episode of Father Ted here.

  • qwertyuiop

    We have all given up expecting anything positive about the Church from the New York Times. The John Wayne reference doesn’t appear to be intentionally malicious, which is the best that can be hoped for from that publication.

  • david s

    Was the papacy 26 years or 27? I too did a double take reading the NYT account, as other reports have said 27 years or “almost 27 years.”

    John Paul became Pope in October 1978 and died in April 2005, so his papacy didn’t last 27 full years. When assigning a person’s age, we say he’s 26 until his 27th birthday. To me, 26 years or “almost 27 years” are both correct.

  • Dan

    David S is referring to this paragraph, which misuses the word “papacy” (a common error that GetReligion writers might want to address sometime) and offers a gratuitous negative opinion about Pope Benedict’s pontificate:

    “Indeed, in its full-voiced celebration of the life of John Paul, who led the church for 26 years, presiding over the fall of Communism and the rise of the global church, the festive Mass could not help underscoring the comparatively quiet and often troubled tenor of Benedict’s six-year-old papacy.”

    Pope Benedict has a “pontificate,” not a “papacy.” The papacy is the office, which does not belong to a particular pope.

    More annoying is the gratuitous (and provocatively vague) slam at Pope Benedict (the “often troubled tenor of Benedict’s six-year-old papacy”), stated as though it were a consensus opinion (which it is not). As is very common in attacks of this nature, a charge is made as though it were fact but is left unsubstantiated. I discern no greater or lesser amount of “trouble” in Pope Benedict’s pontificate as compared to John Paul II’s pontificate. It is true that the sex abuse scandal flared up in Europe during Pope Benedict’s pontificate but it had also flared up during John Paul II’s pontificate (also, as the article acknowledges, the sex abuse scandal is problem that is not of Pope Benedict’s making but one that he inherited (the NYT appears to have given up on its effort to turn the sex abuse scandal into a Watergate type event)). The other “troubles” that are presumably referred to — the matter involving the Holocaust denying Bishop and the reaction to the Regensburg address — were largely media created events of no lasting historical significance and many similar such events, already largely forgotten, occurred from time to time during the course of John Paul II’s pontificate.

    The alleged “quiet” of the pontificate presumably refers to the fall of Communism and the greater media attention John Paul II received for his his historic trips. For anyone paying attention, however, Pope Benedict’s pontificate has not been “quiet” at all. Among many other things, Pope Benedict has restored the old Latin Mass, has had highly successful trips to the Middle East, the United States and Britain, has addressed the United Nations, has taken important actions concerning the Church in China, has written two books on Jesus (granted, not strictly in his role as Pope) and two well received encyclical letters, has challenged the Muslim world at a profound intellectual level on the issues of reason and violence, and has challenged the hyper-secular elements of the West at a profound intellectual level on the shortcomings of purely secular forms of reason.

    It remains to be seen how history will judge the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I believe however that they will be seen as part of a whole, and not, as the NTY assumes, in contrast. Joseph Ratzinger undeniably had a very large role in the success of John Paul II’s pontificate and he continues in his own pontificate to build upon what he so ably helped create during the pontificate of his predecessor.

    (Also, how does a “festive” Mass “underscore” anything that does not correlate to liturgy?)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    When I saw the Wayne picture here I thought there was going to be something about Wayne’s conversion to the Catholic Church late in life. ( Not surprising, he was surrounded by Catholics–all his children and all his more than 20 grandchildren are Catholic).
    The Wayne image for John Paul II is certainly better than some other comparisons I have seen. Frequently, when the pope made a strong decision angering liberals, they would compare him to the Ayatollah Komeini, not John Wayne.

  • Julia

    Lech Walesa, a Solidarity founder and a former Polish president, attended the Mass, as did Poland’s current president, Bronislaw Komorowski.

    President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s longest-ruling autocrats, who was raised a Catholic, sat in the front row with his wife, Grace. President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, where John Paul had close ties, also attended, as did Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

    Some observations about these two paragraphs:

    Lech Walesa gets fewer words than Robert Mugabe? No information given, especially for many in the younger generations who would not know, about the incredible story of Walesa and John Paul heroically daring to stand up to the Communists ruling Poland? Walesa was not only the founder of Solidarity, he was a collaborator of John Paul in bringing down Poland’s overlords.

    What close ties did John Paul have with Mexico? This is a puzzle. To my knowledge he visited Mexico twice. Maybe only once. He liked Our Lady of Guadalupe, but “close ties” more properly describes his connection to Walesa, not the people of Mexico.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Amen to the person who pointed out that he was pope for just over 26 1/2 years, so either 26 or 27 is roughly accurate.
    Regarding the miracle for beatification: There has been some controversy about whether this one met the Vatican’s own strict standards for a medical cure. I suspect that the reporter was trying to create some wiggle room for the controversy without taking the time and space to explain it. However it would have been better to attribute the declaration of the miracle to the Vatican rather than to the sister herself.

  • str

    Dan S,

    “Pope Benedict has a “pontificate,” not a “papacy.” The papacy is the office, which does not belong to a particular pope.”

    That would be the much more common terminology but there is essentially nothing wrong with using “papacy” in reference to a Pope’s reign.