April 14, 2008

Papal Visits Get First-Class Coverage

The media will play an important role in introducing Pope Benedict XVI to Americans, many of whom will get to know the pontiff through press coverage of his six-day visit.

Pope Benedict — who will celebrate his 81st birthday on April 16, the day he meets with President George W. Bush — visited the United States before as a German cardinal. This is his first trip to the United States since becoming pope in 2005.

"Benedict XVI has not established a strong public image among Americans," papal historian and National Catholic Reporter columnist John L. Allen Jr. wrote on March 20. "Consider that in all of 2007, Benedict XVI finished on the front page of The New York Times exactly twice. In the third year of his papacy, John Paul graced the front page a robust 25 times," he said.

Thousands of members of the press have requested credentials to report on Pope Benedict's April 15–20 visit to the East Coast. Among them is Ann Rodgers, religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think that Catholics are still curious about Benedict, that they don't feel that they know him the way they did John Paul," she said.

Rodgers said interest in the pope extends well beyond the Catholic community, partly because he is "the most prominent spokesman for the largest faith in the world — Christianity."

The Holy See Press Office dates back to 1939 and expanded during the papacy of John Paul II, called the most media-savvy pope in history. Still, reporters rarely get opportunities to ask the pope direct questions. An exception is during flights on the papal plane — referred to as "Shepherd One" — which accommodates about 70 journalists.

Because only a few news organizations have Vatican-based correspondents, papal travels allow the media greater access to the pontiff. As a result, travels by the pope have been widely reported.

Pope Paul VI, nicknamed "the pilgrim pope" because he visited six continents, including North America, was the first to travel by airplane. On June 22, 1963, the Chicago Tribune pictured Paul VI giving his first blessing as pope and reported that a meeting with John F. Kennedy, America's first Catholic president, was planned. Fifteen years later, in August 1978, Paul VI died of a heart attack. The Arizona Republic called him "the most widely traveled pope of all times."

Paul VI held that distinction until John Paul II used travel in his mission of evangelization and visited more than 125 countries.

John Paul II made five visits to the United States, including an October 1979 trip to Washington and New York. "The President Greets a 'Pilgrim of Peace,'" the Oct. 7 Washington Post said. The following day, a front-page Post analysis said the pope's visit "put religion back on newspaper front pages day after day and on television hour after hour."

In 1993, The Denver Post called John Paul II a "spiritual superstar" when the pontiff headlined World Youth Day in Denver. "Sea of Love Washes Over Pope at Mile High," the Post said on Aug. 13.

It has been nine years since the last papal trip to the United States, when John Paul II visited St. Louis. So when Benedict XVI's plans were announced, The Washington Post published the news at the top of its front page. Said Leslie Miller, religion editor at USA Today: "Even if people don't treat him as the head of their religion … there's the celebrity factor. He's the pope, and there's only one pope."

In the weeks following the announcement, front pages reported great demand for tickets to Pope Benedict's events. The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., said: "Pope Benedict XVI is coming to Yankee Stadium. Tickets for the Mass are hotter than for Hannah Montana."

An exhibit on the pope and the press is on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery throughout Pope Benedict's U.S. visit.

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