This has been a strange year for the papacy. First, Pope Benedict announced his resignation from the highest office in the Catholic Church in February. Then, when Benedict’s successor was chosen, the world was shocked to see Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerge onto the stage in Vatican Square. Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, must have been fairly shocked himself. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Stacy Meichtry and Alessandra Galloni, “Cardinal Bergoglio expected his trip to be brief. He was already carrying in his black leather briefcase the airplane ticket that would return him home in time for Holy Week…” The new Pope had apparently earned the interest of many voting cardinals by “offering the church-after a decade of struggling to overcome the sexual-abuse crisis and years of internal bickering over issues like the liturgy-was a new narrative.” A new narrative, a new Pope. My 2013 Person of the Year. Here’s why.
Almost immediately after becoming the newest Pope, Francis stunned the entire world. Harriet Alexander of The Telegraph wrote the following passage about a bold action by the Pope during his first Holy Week in the office:
“While popes have for centuries washed the feet of the faithful on the day before Good Friday, never before had a pontiff washed the feet of a woman. That one of the female inmates at the prison in Rome was also a Serbian Muslim was also a break with tradition.”
Here is a Pope that challenges boundaries, religious, cultural, gender-based, or otherwise. In a year where politicians only seemed interested in highlighting differences between people, this new pontiff was bridging divides, disregarding the status quo. Damon Linker of the New Republic wrote that “unlike his predecessors, Francis holds an apparently sincere belief in dialogue, bridge-building, conciliation, and the adjudication of differences.”
So, beyond his willingness to reach out past the walls of the church, what has Pope Francis’ message been? Michael Coren of the New York Daily News, in a September piece, praised “a Pope of nuance and backstory, or delicacy and empathy of delivery.” Empathy of delivery. In a year where many world figures seemed interested in using rhetoric to fire up the base, eviscerate the enemy, there is a Pope in the Vatican with empathy of delivery. Few people who disagree with some of his controversial positions would go so far as to say that Pope Francis has malicious intent. Love him, hate him; he isn’t a demagogue. Hans Kung of the National Catholic Reporter wrote that Francis “is a man with his feet on the ground.” A writer at the Wall Street Journal characterized his leadership style as deliberative and decisive. It seems as though Pope Francis is a compassionate communicator, and a steely administrator.
What exactly could we call “the Pope Francis effect”? Well, look at the World Youth Day in Rio this summer for an example of Francis’ ability to draw a global crowd. In 2008, the World Youth Day in Sydney was attended by only 400,000 people. Five years-and one pope-later, World Youth Day in Rio was attended by almost four million people. In a year when celebrities seemed to recklessly clamor for star power, humble Pope Francis was one of the brightest stars in the world.
And yet, Pope Francis is more than just a celebrity Pope. While in Rio, Francis visited the Varginha slum, one of the poorest areas in the city of Rio, or probably in the world. A life-long resident of Varginha slum was quoted by The Independent‘s Matt Sandy as saying that “it’s so important that the Pope is coming because hopefully now things can get better.” In a year perhaps characterized by economic stagnancy, little enthusiasm for political figures, and heart-wrenching conflicts all over the world, there is a Pope who has inspired optimism, hope. Hopefully now things can get better.
Why is Pope Francis so fascinating to many people in America? Perhaps, we identify with his situation. We look at our own national climate and see an atmosphere similar to that of the Catholic Church before Pope Francis. In a year of disappointments for many Americans, there is an almost instinctive search for a glimmer of hope, one that this Pope can offer. Peggy Noonan wrote that “there’s a certain quality in some popes so that when you see them go by in the automobile, or just on a TV screen, your soul sort of jumps and you find yourself moved in a way you can’t explain.” Pope Francis is such a pontiff. In a divided world, he has reached across religious and cultural aisles. In a self-absorbed world, he has brought attention to the plight of the poor. And in a pessimistic world, he has brought some hope. Some people may overestimate Francis’ ability to deliver. He is, after all, still a man. But there is something special about this man.
For these reasons, Pope Francis is my Person of the Year. And he isn’t finished yet.