He’s got his daily words of wisdom on app; he’s made it almost cool to be Catholic; and he is decidedly an all around good guy, so it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis, after just nine months on the job, has been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2013.
The Argentine pontiff, who will turn 77 on December 17, beat out an impressive field of competitors. Earlier this week, Time leaked their top five contenders for the sometimes-dubious honor. The Person of the Year is defined not as the best person of the year, but as the most influential global newsmaker—for better or worse —and this year’s camp included gay rights activist Edith Windsor, leaker extraordinaire Edward Snowden, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Texas senator Ted Cruz. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to see why the pope won.
In their profile of the pontiff, Time editors wrote, “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… 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.”
The news was welcomed in Rome. Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said that the honor wasn’t surprising, given the “resonance and very widespread attention given to the election of Pope Francis and the beginning of his pontificate.” He called it a positive signal that such a prestigious honor would be bestowed on a religious leader who “proclaims spiritual, religious and moral values in the world.”
But he said the pope was hardly gloating over the honor. “With regard to the pope, for his part, he does not seek fame and success, since he carries out his service for the proclamation of the Gospel and the love of God for all. If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the pope is content. If this nomination as "Person of the Year" means that many have understood this message, at least implicitly, he will certainly be glad.”
Charles Lindbergh won the first “Man of the Year” title in 1927 for flying his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic. Adolph Hitler got the nod in 1938. Francis is the third pope to be named as Person of the Year. John XXIII was tapped in 1962 and John Paul II in 1994. American president Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012, and Franklin D. Roosevelt won the title three times, as did Joseph Stalin.
Francis has done wonders for the Catholic Church’s reputation since his election on March 13, 2013. Since taking office, he has continued to surprise his critics, so much so that he has inspired a smartphone app that broadcasts “daily surprise” quotes from Vatican City. He has shunned the usual pomp and pageantry of the papacy for a humble existence, and encouraged high-ranking clerics to do the same, earning him the nickname Francis the Frugal. He keeps the papal Mercedes parked in the Vatican garage and insists on tooling around Rome in well-worn 1984 Renault. He has promised to reform the Church, and has already appointed several committees of reform-minded advisors to help him restructure the Vatican bank and address the Church’s indefensible record on child sex abuse.He regularly cold-calls Catholics who write to him to offer his blessing and support. He has shown extreme humility towards the poor and disabled, making global headlines last month when he hugged a severely disfigured man in St. Peter’s square. Rumors abound that he sneaks out of Vatican City at night to feed Rome’s poor, and he told a group of reporters that, even as pope, he was in no position to judge homosexuals as long as they live a faithful life.
If his first year is any indication of what’s to come, Pope Francis has a very good chance of winning again in the future.