Pundits often lament that in recent years we've become an “entertainment culture” obsessed with celebrity. It seems to be an obsession without limit. As John Prizer writes in his review of Air Force One (see page 7), we have even begun to measure our presidents by their pop celebrity appeal as well as by their ability to lead. And, as Prizer notes quite rightly, despite some worthy predecessors, our current chief exec-utive—he of the hipster shades and sax appeal—is a true master at the game.
There's nothing inherently wrong in recognizing and playing to the obsession as Bill Clinton so masterfully has done, first as a presidential candidate and since 1992 as president. Why not show a sense of humor and try to win over the younger generation by waxing hip on MTVand blowing the sax on late night TV? Some observers found his overtures to the younger generation endearing and even a little daring.
The problem is that popular appeal in our celebrity culture is more about image and perception than about reality or truth. And Clinton's image consultants have mostly succeeded in getting the public to see him in a positive light. But as hip, or as concerned for the common man, or as moderate on abortion (pro-lifers know the truth about that) as the general public might think him, Clinton still can't seem to shake the wide-spread perception that he is too ready to bend with the winds of popular opinion. Even many of his supporters don't think him a man of any real mettle. Apparently the image consultants can't fool the public all the time.
In sharp contrast stands Pope John Paul II. Like Clinton or any leader, the Pontiff has his supporters and his detractors. (Most detractors think him too full of mettle.) But John Paul, who is recognized, even by critics, as telegenic and as an effective communicator, has proven he has plenty of staying power in the fickle celebrity culture. This despite declining to tender his message to garner popular support.
And a simple question underscores his appeal to youth: How many world leaders could draw nearly half a million young people from all over the world, as John Paul II is expected to do for World Youth Day next week in Paris?
The Pope doesn't accommodate his message based on polls or pundits because he isn't concerned about protecting his image—only about furthering the profound truths proclaimed by Christ 2000 years ago. People, especially young people, sense that and are drawn to it. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope John Paul II makes the same point: “(When the young seek me out) in truth it is not the Pope who is being sought out at all. The one being sought out is Christ…”
That even our president seems a product of the celebrity culture is disconcerting. But not all the world's youth have bought into the narcissistic gospel that image is everything and that we should all aspire to our 15 minutes of fame on the daytime TVtalk shows. Though almost everyone gathering from around the world in Paris next week came of age in the midst of our celebrity culture, their presence at World Youth Day presumably means they haven't fallen for the culture's prevailing siren song.
In Paris, the Pope will hold up two persons whose lives offer a bold alternative to the celebration and pursuit of celebrity. The two: Frederic Ozanam, who at 20 co-founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the charitable group that's now combating poverty in more than 130 countries; and St. Theresa of Lisieux, who though she entered the cloister at 15 and died just nine years later, has had an immeasurable impact on the faith of many with her “little way” of spiritual devotion. Both Ozanam and Theresa lived and died last century, but how they chose to live offers a relevant counter-cultural example for our times.
The pull to devote oneself to cultivating an image is strong and persistent in our culture. But, more often than not, what lies behind the pose is emptiness and nihilism, and none of the richness that must have filled Frederic Ozanam or Theresa. Both were young and restless and searching for something deeper—just as are many youth today. When half a million of them gather together in Paris, they'll be reminded they aren't alone.