Pope Has Help From Hollywood

Entertainment execs lend a hand in packaging his message

THERE are production designers, associate producers, communication directors, and event organizers.

Is this a presidential inauguration, a rock concert, or a Broadway show?

Try a religious ceremony.

On Saturday morning, when Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass on the Great Lawn of New York's Central Park, he will have considerable help from some of the nation's top sports and entertainment producers.

While the pope's visit involves preparations on the level of producing a rock concert, Roman Catholic officials stress the religious nature of the event.

''It's hard to keep those things from looking like a big show, a big spectacle, but the objective is spiritual,'' says the Most Rev. John Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of New York.

That said, this pope has excelled at tapping into the growing appeal of a religious message presented at huge rallies and embellished with a flourish of show-business style. This approach came into vogue in the last decade as religious leaders decided to co-opt commercial-marketing techniques to attract a new generation of believers.

The church has hired top entertainment managers to handle the pope's visit. For example, the overall event producer, Stig Edgren, was an organizer of President Clinton's Arkansas Ball following his inauguration. Recently, he was creative director for a pay-per-view Elvis tribute filmed in Memphis.

The communications director, Larry Estrin, has worked on the last seven Super Bowls. The production designer, Rene Lagler, was involved in the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

''This is like working on a Rolling Stones concert, but with the pope instead of the Stones,'' says one event organizer, who adds, ''Of course, the Secret Service never shows up for the Rolling Stones.''

Security was at its highest level for the pope's visit, which included a speech at the United Nations yesterday.

The pope said there are wide areas of cooperation between the church and the UN ''on the basis of their common concern for the human family.'' He urged the UN to rise above ''the cold status of an administrative institution'' and become a moral center - a ''family of nations.''

Celebrating mass outdoors

Much of the rest of the pope's visit will focus on his spiritual message, which he will convey in part through elaborate outdoor masses.

Cardinal O'Connor sys he expects New Yorkers will arrive at the park with a feeling of a pilgrimage ''and once they see him, then everything else disappears from their minds except the charisma of this man.''

While this pope has excelled at successfully packaging his message, he is not the only religious figure to turn to spectacle. Evangelist Billy Graham usually has entertainers, such as Johnny Cash, at his events. In the early 1900s, for example, fundamentalist preacher W.A. ''Billy'' Sunday used his powerful stage presence and baseball fame to bring people into church.

''In American culture there is a long close relationship between religion and entertainment,'' says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College in New York.

Religion and entertainment

The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of employing artists, such as Michelangelo, and using rich ceremony.

''For the pope in the 20th century, you would expect him to use the best artists, the best skilled people,'' says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Catholic churches are hoping to pay for the pope's visit in part by licensing rights to pope memorabilia.

Mr. Reese says the pope's visits to other countries are usually cheaper and simpler. ''You get some local artists to do some artwork and you get some local singers,'' he says.

However, in the US the event organizers need medical personnel on hand, all types of insurance, and hundreds of porta-potties. The Secret Service has required that large lanes be kept unoccupied for security purposes.

US audiences also expect to see some superstars with the pope, says Reese.

''If you are going to do an event for hundreds of thousands of people, you cannot just have Mr. and Mrs. Smith with guitars leading people in song like a normal parish Mass,'' he elaborates.

They are also likely to be struck by the music. Instead of the Smiths, the event will include opera star Placido Domingo and such pop stars as Roberta Flack and Natalie Cole.

The music is necessary, says Reese, since people have to arrive so early to get seats, avoid traffic and pass through security. And, he adds, the music has to be good because ''This is New York.''

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