Pope Francis (Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press)

A year ago today, we were transfixed by a live video feed of a Vatican chimney. Sighting the puff of white smoke heralding the election of a new pope would be the reward. As thrilling as it was to witness such a historic event, we had no idea that Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, would become a global star.

Look, even though I attended Catholic schools, I’m not religious. In fact, I’ll admit to being suspicious of religion (or more specifically, of those who practice theirs with exclusionary fervor) since it has been used to justify horrible practices and positions, from slavery to segregation to homophobia. But when I was asked who was the biggest winner  of 2013 by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell last year, there was no question in my mind that it was Pope Francis.

For the last year, the first Jesuit and the first Latin American to become pope has been speaking in a way that has brought millions of people who were turned off by the church’s message or tuned out the church completely back to the church. For instance, in an interview with America magazine in September, Pope Francis talked about gays and lesbians and their relationship with the church with breathtaking compassion, respect and openness. Or how about when he washed the feet of 12 inmates that included two women and two Muslims? As a result of such humility, I, a veritable heathen, have written four glowing pieces about the current pope. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI merited none.

The Post’s E.J. Dionne reminds us in his column today that “[Pope Francis] has not altered church doctrine, but his shift in emphasis has been breathtaking.”

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he has said. “This is not possible.” He thus declared that the church’s main mission would no longer be as a lead combatant in the culture wars. It would stand primarily with and for the neediest.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems the Vatican must address. The sex abuse scandal, the tussle with American nuns and the financial management of the ancient city-state are just a few that come to mind. But in tone and word, Pope Francis has given Catholics and non-Catholics alike hope that the church is moving in the right direction.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj