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  • John Thavis

Why Pope Francis is Time’s "Person of the Year"

Today Time magazine named Pope Francis “Person of the Year” for 2013.

Why I’m not surprised:

Francis is a truly global figure, not just because he’s the head of a global religion but because of his radically different vision of the church and the papacy. As he put it, he sees the church first of all as a “field hospital” that has the primary task of healing people’s wounds. He favors dialogue over doctrine, closeness to the people over clericalism, mercy over judgment and joyful witness over cultural warfare. All this has struck a chord among contemporary Christians and non-Christians.

Catholics, to their surprise, have watched the pope take up the Vatican II agenda again, breathing new life into concepts of collegiality and lay participation. He’s even willing to survey Catholics when it comes to next big Vatican powwow on family issues.

From the standpoint of the news media, Francis is a perfect “person of the year” – a great communicator, combining plain-spoken preaching with gestures that communicate volumes, whether it be washing the tattooed foot of a young woman on Holy Thursday or embracing a man with a severe facial disfigurement at his general audience.

The pope’s attention to the world’s poor and marginalized is both personal and political. He’s visited with immigrants, refugees, prisoners and unemployed youths, and beefed up the Vatican’s own charity office, while denouncing the excesses of capitalism as a “new tyranny.” When a pope tells the world that “the culture of prosperity deadens us,” it is rightly seen as a challenge to the global economic system.

On issues of justice and peace, Francis wants to draw renewed attention to the Catholic Church’s impressive body of social teaching. True, he is not recommending a detailed political program. But he is proposing ethical principles that have political consequences. At the same time, he’s underlined the power of prayer, leading prayer initiatives for the cessation of fighting in Syria and for an end to world hunger.

Clearly, the pope wants to reclaim the church’s moral influence on the world stage. To do this, he knows he has to rebuild church credibility, and he’s taken that task on with energy. His council of cardinals to reform the Roman Curia, his various commissions to clean up Vatican finances and, most recently, his Vatican-level commission on clerical sexual abuse are all part of a serious effort to address chronic problems that have undermined the church’s moral voice.

These are huge undertakings, in response to equally huge challenges.

Finally, a big part of what makes Francis such a good choice for “person of the year” is his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The first papal resignation in modern history set the stage for a conclave that surprised everyone – well, just about everyone – by electing someone who has set the church on a new course.

At this point, Francis is being recognized more for the hopes he’s engendered than his accomplishments. But as the cover of Time confirms, he has definitely set important changes in motion.

UPDATE: Here’s the official Vatican reaction today from spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:

This fact is unsurprising, considering the resonance and very widespread attention given to the election of Pope Francis and the beginning of his pontificate. It is a positive sign that one of the most prestigious acknowledgements in the field of the international press has been attributed to one who proclaims spiritual, religious and moral values in the world, and who speaks effectively in favour of peace and greater justice.

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.

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