Joe Schlesinger: Can humility alone reshape the modern papacy?

The Polish pope, John Paul II, set a new charisma standard for the modern papacy, Joe Schlesinger writes. Can the avowedly humble Pope Francis meet that bar and seize the media moment to revitalize a failing church?

Pope Francis's tall order: the star-power standards of John Paul II

Pope Francis blesses the faithful in St. Peter's Square on Sunday. He was still wearing the black shoes. (Max Rossi / Reuters)

Pope Francis has a hard act to follow. No, not the reign of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, but that of John Paul II whose charisma transformed the contemporary papacy. 

If Francis is to revitalize the Catholic Church and shake up the stifling Vatican bureaucracy that has helped mire it in scandal, he will have to establish himself, as the Polish pope did, as a compelling figure with an ardent global following.

Francis has already indicated that his approach will be very different from the grandeur of John Paul's reign as he is promising to base his pontificate on humility and poverty.  

And while this humility — paying his own hotel bill, wading into crowds in St. Peter's Square — has won him favourable press, to be truly successful he is going to have to find ways to truly grab the world's attention and use the media to do it.  

Given all the hoopla of these last five weeks since Benedict's announced retirement, it is hard to remember that changes in the occupancy of The Throne of St. Peter were not always accompanied by the media frenzy we've just been witnessing.  

It certainly wasn't when I covered a succession of popes starting with Paul VI more than 40 years ago, and including John Paul and then John Paul II.  

The death of a pope and the election of a new one was still big news, but infinitely more modest than now.  

The media contingent was in the hundreds, not the thousands that we've just seen. And there were certainly few TV anchors on site; most stayed ensconced in their studios back home.  

The coverage was left to reporters like me, a producer and camera crew standing in the crowd in St. Peter's Square waiting for hours for the next chapter in the drama.  

I particularly remember the election of John Paul II in 1978. When his name, Karol Wojtyla, was announced from the balcony St. Peter's Basilica a cry of "E chi è?" (Who is it?) arose around the square.  

When I told the people in the crowd around me that he was a Pole, there was disbelief. No wonder; after all, the last non-Italian pope before him was Adrian VI, a Dutchman elected in 1522.  

Little did we know when the Polish pope was elected how he would re-energize the church with the sheer force of his personality.  

He successfully challenged the hold of the Communist regime in his native Poland, thereby helping pave the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

He preached the virtues of democracy in other countries under dictatorial rule, including Haiti, Chile, the Philippines and South Korea.  

 And he reached out to other Christian churches as well as to Muslims and Jews. He made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he prayed for God's forgiveness for those who had participated in the Holocaust.

His personal stage

In all, John Paul II took his pastoral message to 129 countries, from Argentina in the south to Canada's North, where he spoke out bluntly in support of self-government for Aboriginal Peoples.

Pope John Paul II performs a mass before a filled soccer stadium in Buenos Aires in 1987. Wherever he went the crowds were huge. (Reuters)

In the process, John Paul II became a superstar, one of the world's most popular people. There were huge crowds everywhere he went. Eight hundred thousand in Toronto. More than four million in Manila.  

And if there was one thing that best described John Paul's determination to project himself on the world stage it was the "popemobile."  

Until he came along, 20th-century popes rode in limos, so that onlookers might see, at best, what looked vaguely like someone in the car waving an arm.  

JPII changed that. Shortly after he became pope, on a visit to Poland, he rode standing up on what was basically the back of a truck so that everyone could see him. More sophisticated and elaborate models followed.  

The popemobiles became John Paul II's personal stage, a portable stage that came to be recognized the world over.  

His successor, Benedict XVI, was never able to match his predecessor's influence, or create a stage of his own. 

It was not just that Benedict was more reserved than his predecessor. It was also that he was burdened with problems John Paul was never forced to face publicly: the scandal of sexual abuses by clergymen, and the bungling bureaucracy that ran the Vatican.

A papal narrative

Now it is up to Francis to build a stage with a narrative of his own if he is to make a mark in retrieving the church's relevance.

For him, it would seem, it's neither the popemobile nor the limo that will do the trick. If he has his way it will more likely be the common bus, like the one he is said to have ridden to work on during his time as archbishop of Argentina.  

Nor should it be, as it was for John Paul II, the fight for democracy that occupies his energies. Democracy is doing much better globally than it did when Cardinal Wojtyla became pope 35 years ago.  

Pope Francis has chosen instead to make a war on poverty his overriding mission. And he has elected to do so not with John Paul's bravura but with modesty.  

He made that clear from the moment he first appeared on the balcony, not in the splendour of traditional papal dress but in a plain white robe with a wooden cross and black shoes, instead of the fancy red ones his predecessors wore.  

Then, before delivering the traditional papal benediction of the crowd in the square, he humbly bowed his head asked them to bless him first.  

There is now a whole list of gestures Francis has made over the past few days to signal his determination to remain a simple priest on a sacred mission to lift the abject poverty of those who live on $1.25 a day or less, about a fifth of humanity.  

The world cannot but wish him good luck.  

On the headline issues of same sex-marriage and abortion, the new pope will undoubtedly be as doctrinaire as his predecessors.  

But his fight against poverty could bring him a worldwide reputation for a benevolent heart that could reassure the millions of Catholics who've been faltering in their faith that their church has not lost the core of compassion on which it was founded.  

The stage is set, the cameras are waiting. Can the Argentine Pope carry the church forward, as a Polish one once did?