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In Rome

Wired, News-Hungry World Tests Venerable Traditions

By Glenn Frankel and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page A16

VATICAN CITY, April 7 -- It follows an ancient script: The setting is the place where the body of Saint Peter himself is said to repose, the language is Latin and the dominant shade is red -- the color of empire.

The body is laid to rest in three caskets together with a parchment eulogy rolled in a copper tube and velvet bags of gold, silver and bronze medallions. But the funeral of Pope John Paul II has many modern touches as well, such as the use of liturgies updated in the 1960s and broadcast on 25 huge television screens throughout Rome, and advisories about crowd control and traffic transmitted via text message to 41 million cell-phone users throughout Italy.

U.S. cardinals and bishops, including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, center, prepare for a reception that was held for President Bush at the U.S. Embassy in Rome on Thursday night. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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No Western institution is older or more swathed in tradition, pomp and circumstance than the Roman Catholic Church, and few are more wary of the post-modern world of round-the-clock media, hyper-technology and intimate disclosure. The church is wrestling with issues as varied as stem cell research, use of condoms to combat HIV infection, and celibacy in the priesthood.

But seldom have the collisions and the compromises between tradition and modernity been so palpable as during the events surrounding this pope's death.

Some of the changes represent concessions to modern science. The ritual method of determining if a pope has died -- three taps on the forehead with a small silver hammer -- was eschewed this time for an electrocardiogram administered to John Paul for more than 20 minutes.

Other departures have suggested an eerie bow to public curiosity. Within 24 hours of the pope's death, his body, clad in red vestments, was placed in the Vatican's Clementine Hall for private viewing by cardinals. This time, however, Vatican television cameras were also there, transmitting live. When the images were projected on the wide screens in St. Peter's Square, the huge crowd gasped.

Pope Paul VI's death in 1978 was announced with a simple telegram to cardinals: "The Pope is dead. Come at once."

Twenty-seven years later, the Vatican has its own television broadcasting service, two daily newspapers, an internal news agency, a Web site and an efficient press office that doles out information in careful doses and is especially sensitive to the needs of the broadcast media.

Armed with an arsenal of modern media tools, the church is doing its best to accommodate -- and manipulate -- the modern world while retaining tight control over information, decisions and its own fabled mystique.

"You have to live in the modern world," said Chester Gillis, chairman of Georgetown University's theology department. "At the same time, the ancient mystery of the church is a very attractive element, not just to Catholics but to non-Catholics."

John Paul was a deft communicator who understood how to use the media to deliver his message, and he oversaw a process that inevitably forced the Vatican to change some of its more secretive ways. "Mass media can and must promote justice and solidarity," he said in one speech.

After Paul VI's successor, John Paul I, died a month into his papacy, the church for years did not disclose the fact that his body had been found by his female housekeeper, thus inadvertently keeping alive a rumor that he had been murdered. Vatican officials seemed determined to avoid a recurrence of that with John Paul II.

During the pope's final days, the Vatican press office issued at least two medical bulletins daily and released his death certificate afterward.

Yet even in John Paul's modern Vatican, change came slowly. His will was not read until five days after his death and a day after its contents were disclosed to the cardinals.

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