Time's fitting choice: The "people's pope" as Person of the Year

A meteoric year earns Pope Francis the magazine's top spot

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 11, 2013 3:51PM (EST)

  (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
(AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

A year ago, he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a lesser-known Latin American cardinal and a former bouncer. On Wednesday, he became Time magazine's Person of the Year. Not too shabby, Pope Francis.

The "septuagenarian superstar," as Time calls the 76-year-old, Buenos Aires-born pontiff, edged out Edward Snowden and Edith Windsor for the top spot, affirming that it has been a very good year for challenging dominant paradigms. And though he's not exactly rewriting all the rules of one of the wealthiest, most powerful – and most conservative – institutions in the world, the Jesuit who renamed himself after the humble saint from Assisi has spent the first few months of his new job making it very clear to his flock of over 1 billion Catholics around the world that he's here to shake things up.

Nearly everything about the papacy of Francis has been unexpected – starting with the all but unprecedented resignation of his predecessor, the far more stubbornly traditional Pope Benedict. He inherited a church mired in worldwide sexual abuse cases, stretching back decades, a church facing an embarrassing and expensive banking scandal. One that seemed to many defiantly closed off and out of touch with the experiences and challenges of the members it's supposed to minister to. No wonder, moments after the "long shot pick" first appeared to the crowd waiting outside the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in March, he told them, "Pray for me." This guy was going to need all the help he could get.

Has Francis, in the nine months since he assumed the chair of St. Peter, fixed his desperately wounded church? Hey, he's a pope, not a miracle worker. But he has spoken with groundbreaking openness and inclusion toward gay people, saying, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" He has called for a "peaceful coexistence" with atheists and said that "Doing good is not a matter of faith" -- a statement that had Vatican officials hilariously scrambling to walk back the remarks. He's called religious ideology an "illness" and chastised his own church for being "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, explaining, "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent." He's repeatedly gone medieval – in the good way – on the subject of poverty, blasting the "tyranny" of capitalism and the "idolatry of money." As he wrote in November, "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality … How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" He also allegedly likes to sneak out at night and help the homeless. Who is this guy, Cory Booker?

Yes, it's still the Catholic Church we're talking about here, and it's still clearly a very long way away from budging on marriage equality, reproductive freedom, women in ministry or plenty of other issues progressive Christians are fighting for. And as Alyssa Rosenberg said on Think Progress Wednesday, her "problem" with Time's choice of Francis as Person of the Year is that it "doesn’t mean he’s completely erased years of justifiable fury over clerical sexual abuse, or the lavish lifestyles of some priests," and that "it's ultimately going to be more significant for Francis to start pushing change downward in the Church hierarchy."

But as a Catholic myself, I've got to admit, having a pope who makes Fox News go ballistic is really, really satisfying. It's serious progress when we recall that this time last December, Catholics had a pope who was willing to use his Christmas message to describe homosexuality as "the manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned." Time notes, "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."

There is a whole lot of work to be done, and not just in the Catholic Church. The world needs leadership that speaks to tolerance and compassion, to the spirit of cooperation. It needs the assertive example of not merely talking about issues like poverty and social justice, but getting out of the echo chamber, going outside and helping the people right outside our own doors. It needs reminders that faith isn't just what you believe; it's what you do. He has a long, rough road ahead of him. He has a legacy yet to be written. But after decades of popes so removed, so untouchable, Time's choice is fitting precisely because it contains the word "person." The papacy of Francis has been nothing so far if not marked by surprising, encouraging humanity. And that's what makes him most remarkable -- that the white-clad big shot who lives at the Vatican seems determined to remain, in many ways, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Catholicism Pope Francis Time Magazine Time Person Of The Year Vatican