After a mere nine months on the job, Time Magazine has named Pope Francis its Person of the Year for 2013. The editors at Time award the annual distinction to the individual whom they consider the most influential global newsmaker of the year. What is it about Francis that makes him such a sensation?
Francis became pope at a time when all the news streaming out from the Vatican was negative. The clerical sexual abuse scandal, Vatileaks, the Vatican’s paternalistic attitude towards women religious in the United States, the refusal to discuss the ordination of women, and the endless focus on sexual morality had disheartened many faithful Catholics. While many were wondering how much longer they could remain part of the church, others had already left.
Into this milieu, a relatively unknown cardinal, José Bergoglio, burst onto the world stage and captured the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with lightning speed. Choosing the name Francis, after the saint known for the renunciation of his wealth, his embrace of poverty and his radical commitment to the gospel, Pope Francis signaled that change was afoot.
At the institutional level, Pope Francis is initiating change. He has set up committees to address the church’s dismal record on child sex abuse and to restructure the Vatican Bank. On a pastoral level, he has called a synod to discuss the issues facing families. While there is nothing unusual about a pope calling a synod, Francis is asking ordinary Catholics for input in advance of the synod through the circulation of a questionnaire that is available online in most dioceses.
Since his election as pope, Francis has surprised the world with his spontaneity and humility. He is a man who eschews both the trappings and protocols of the highest clerical office in the church. He drives around the Vatican in a 1984 Renault, a gift from a priest who served the poor, instead of the papal Mercedes. He acknowledges the institutional sinfulness of the church, as well as his personal failure to perfectly follow Christ and receives the sacrament of reconciliation bi-weekly. He reaches out to the disadvantaged and wounded, not only caressing a man disfigured with neurofibromatosis, but also by walking among the poor at night in order to feed them. He meets the temporal and spiritual needs of those with whom he comes into contact.
This man, who is the subject of so many photos, is not about the photo-op. This man, whom some call “Francis, the Frugal”, and who promotes a “culture of encounter” between the church and the world, is about following Christ. Francis brings the Gospel message of hope into lives that are broken, and into a world where the news is generally negative.
In my view, Pope Francis has an extraordinary ability to make God present to people. He reminds the world that the message of Christmas is a message for everyday: God is with us. He shows the church and the world that God is not an abstract theological concept wrapped up in dogma and doctrine, nor a far off deity unconcerned with the affairs of humans. Francis carries the healing mission of the church into the world.
This global newsmaker is about much more than headlines, good public relations and snappy photos. He is about the compassionate mercy of God, and that attracts attention.