Time magazine naming Pope Francis its Person of the Year for 2013 signals once again that our society still pays significant attention to the Catholic Church and that its new leader is breathing new life into the institution.
Over the past 50 years, Time has chosen three Catholic popes
to bear this title: John XXIII (1963), John Paul II (1994) and now
Francis. They stand among monarchs, politicians, protesters, scientists
and industrialists and even the computer.
Each year, Time’s editors seek out “the person or persons who
most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what
was important about the year.”
The distinction does not necessarily
emphasize achievement but something that captivated public attention and
connected with society’s own preoccupations.
Notably, the Person of the Year highlights an individual, not the
institution for which he is a spokesman. Yet choosing the pope as Person
of the Year reveals a continuing global public fascination with the
nearly 2,000-year-old institution, both in its commitment to
immutability and its potential to change the world.
Although each of these popes represents a different moment in
Catholicism’s interaction with the world, two themes connect these three
men and reveal why we continue to watch the Vatican.
First, there is hope. As John XXIII announced the start of the Second
Vatican Council in 1962, he was praised for seeming to usher in a new
phase of openness in the Catholic Church. In its 1963 profile, Time noted
in John a “warmth, simplicity and charm” that won hearts, revitalized
parishes and spurred hopeful discussions of “modernizing” Catholic life.
Three decades later, John Paul II attracted similar attention, this
time drawing audiences of millions to hear him speak of freedom from
repressive regimes and love for humankind.
He reached out through radio, print and exhaustive travel, always
combining exhortation to politicians with the human touch of pilgrims’
outstretched hands. His message of hope was tempered with an emphasis on
Catholic behavior that made him an ambivalent character at the end of
Current Catholics and Vatican watchers see aspects of both these men in Francis. In its profile, Time described
him as humble and compassionate, emphasizing love and brotherhood
across both international borders and the boundaries that wealth
Since his election, he has attracted as much public acclamation and
interest as both John and John Paul. Reporters have popularized “the
Francis Effect” — a renewal of interest in attending church and pride in
Catholic identity among so-called lapsed members.
However, alongside that theme of hope for compassion and aiding those who suffer, observers see complexity. Time noted that Francis “has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.”
His compassionate stance on abortion, divorce and homosexuality
shifts discussion from obeying doctrine to facilitating love and
salvation through dispelling inequality and misery.
More than his
predecessors, Francis stands as a sign of continuity and change.
Moral behavior is not debatable, but the road to individual salvation
depends on communal effort to build a healthier and more loving world.
Herein is the source of the public attraction.
Unlike popes of the early 20th century, Francis avoids isolation. In a
gesture to combine these themes of continuity and change with hope for
the future, Francis plans to canonize John XXIII and John Paul II on
Perhaps more than anything, this gesture shows the
compatibility of these themes and a desire to do good without alienating
either the good of the past or the possibility of a healthier future.