Time has named Pope Francis its Person of the Year for 2013. The charismatic Catholic leader, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio and previously the cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected to the church’s highest office in March after the resignation of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. It was the first time a sitting pope had abdicated in centuries, and the new pontiff was the first from Latin America in the history of the Holy See.
Francis’s message of social justice, tolerance, and humility has won over people all over the world, Catholics and others alike. In their cover story for Time, Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias wrote:
The papacy is mysterious and magical: it turns a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself. And it raises hopes in every corner of the world—hopes that can never be fulfilled, for they are irreconcilable. The elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass and the devout young woman who wishes she could be a priest both have hopes. The ambitious monsignor in the Vatican Curia and the evangelizing deacon in a remote Filipino village both have hopes. No Pope can make them all happy at once.
But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.” In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.
And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator. He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face. He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”
Yet, as Chua-Eoan and Dias emphasize, Francis has not challenged any of the Church’s orthodoxy on recognizing gay marriages or allowing women to join the priesthood. Instead, he has found ways of emphasizing more sympathetic aspects of the Church’s teaching, as Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic himself, explains:
He asserts orthodoxy and then swerves dramatically to one side, his voice lilting and becoming more intense, as if to say, “Yes, I know this is what the Church teaches, and I am not challenging that. But look at the wider picture. Remember that in the Church, the honor accorded to Jesus’ mother is higher than that of any of the apostles, and that women, simply by virtue of being women, are above priests in importance to the Body of Christ.” That’s both a repetition of orthodoxy and yet also a whole-sale re-imagination of it.
Think of this Pope’s refusal to revisit the issue of women in the priesthood and then note that he washed the feet of a woman in Holy Week – the first time any Pope had washed the feet of a woman, let alone, as was the case, a Muslim woman in juvenile detention. . . .
What Francis is telling us, it seems to me, is that we should stop squabbling about these esoteric doctrines – while he assents to orthodoxy almost reflexively – and simply do good to others, which is the only thing that really matters. Stop obsessing in your mind and act in the world: help someone, love someone, forgive someone, meet someone.
Time’s editors selected Pope Francis as the person who has had the greatest influence on the news over the past 12 months. Lillian Cunningham explains the history of the award:
The magazine first released such a cover in 1927 under the name “Man of the Year,” and conferred the title on Charles Lindbergh for his solo trans-Atlantic flight. Since then, the annual covers have featured global peacemakers, U.S. presidents, tech billionaires, dictators and more amorphous concepts, like “the protestor” and “the endangered earth.” The editors’ intention is not to praise the figures selected, but to acknowledge their influence in shaping the news and history of the outgoing year. (Hence why Adolph Hitler made the cover in 1938.)
Francis was chosen from a varied list of candidates that included former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, President Obama, and Miley Cyrus.