NEW YORK — Early this morning on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Time magazine announced that Pope Francis was selected as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013. Indeed, 2013 was the Year of Pope Francis worldwide. From the moment white smoke floated from the Vatican chimney and the world listened to the famous cry of “Habemus Papam” and saw the first pope from the Americas standing on the balcony, the secular and religious media have been obsessed with the Pope Francis — and rightfully so.
They immediately praised the humble former Archbishop of Buenos Aires who rode the bus to work, lived in a small apartment, and was referred to affectionately as “Padre Jorge” by those he served. Today’s recognition by Time, nine months after his election, shows that the Pope Francis obsession was not just a passing fad. The new pontiff has had a worldwide, positive impact through the way he has served the Church and the world during his short time as Bishop of Rome.
“In less than a year,” wrote Nancy Gibbs, Time magazine’s managing editor, ”he has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.”
Indeed, while Pope Francis has not changed a single word of Catholic doctrine during the nine months following his election, he has sought to shift focus away from the political hot-button issues that have traditionally driven the media’s coverage of the Catholic Church.
“Who am I to judge?” he asked, in response to a question on homosexuality during his flight back from World Youth Day last summer. While many in the media questioned whether Francis was “changing Catholic teachings,” he was merely posing the humble question that each Catholic should ask themselves when asked to judge the behavior of others.
Further, much of what Pope Francis says and does on a daily basis is actually in line with the words of his immediate predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI, too, signed documents condemning the unjust discrimination of homosexuals. And Pope Francis’s “candid” response last summer actually echoes a Vatican publication during Pope John Paul II’s papacy that called for compassion and understanding for persons with same-sex attraction.
Pope Francis’s tenure thus far has not been a departure from the continuity of tradition; it has been a reaffirmation of the most basic teachings of the Church. It turns out that while the secular media was calling for a Pope to help the Church “evolve,” what the world really hungered for was a shepherd who would bring the Catholic Church back to Christian basics — visible actions that demonstrate the love and mercy of God, and call men and women into an encounter with God.
Early in his papacy, Pope Francis called for a Church that would be for and of the poor. When visiting Brazil during World Youth Day, Pope Francis ventured into the slums of Rio de Janeiro. With no physical protection, he walked through the neighborhood and greeted residents in the poor and crime-stricken region. He did not appear as a Church prince from a far-off place, he walked among them as though he was one of them.
For all of the talk about the small apartment, the simple car, and the basic garments, perhaps this simple gesture is the humble Pope’s most humble act — to travel the dangerous streets of the big city, unprotected, to reach out to those who need him most. It was as though he was heeding the words that defined the papacy of John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”
These acts of humility unite the Church because they are not done alone. Just as the Pope gives to the poor without seeking recognition, so do millions of Catholics worldwide every day. Just as the Pope reaches out to help the sick, millions of Catholic doctors, nurses, and social workers comfort the afflicted every day. Unsung saints around the world do God’s work among God’s people. From war-torn communities in the Middle East to the streets of New York and Madrid, holy men and women carry out the Church’s mission to help those who are most in need. The saintly actions that are taken by Pope Francis, and are now being recorded by the media, are mirrored by the faithful around the world every day.
This is why Time awarded Pope Francis as Person of the Year: “For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…”
Perhaps most accurately, Time called him the world’s “new voice of conscience.” He has assumed this mantle by highlighting the plight of the poor, the immigrant, and the sick. Months ago, the Francis embraced a severely disfigured man in Rome. While many in the world walk away from such a man, the Pope walked toward him. He hugged him, kissed him, and held him in his arms for over a minute. In that moment, the Pope taught his most valuable, consistent lesson: love one another.
From his refreshing shifts in tone to his countless acts of mercy, Pope Francis continues to send shockwaves through a media that cannot seem to understand what makes him operate the way he does. The answer to this question, of course, is quite simple.
Pope Francis was not just elected by a group of cardinals in Rome; he was selected by the Holy Spirit. His words and actions as the Bishop of Rome have been guided by Christ and Christ’s love. His compassion is the radical love of the Gospel. The perceived “shifts” in behavior from the Vatican are not the results of vague concepts of mercy or some sort of political pragmatism; they are the fruit of divine inspiration.
It is said that Pope Francis prays throughout his entire day, “even when waiting at the dentist.” When he first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica last March, his first action was to bow his head and to ask that the faithful to pray for him. He prayed with the crowd and told them that he would spend his first day as Pope going to the Madonna and petitioning that she guide his tenure as Bishop of Rome.
“Let us take this journey together, Bishop and people,” he said. “Let us pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great sense of brotherhood.”
Indeed, Pope Francis has truly been a “Pope of the People.” Over three million young people attended World Youth Day last summer. The numbers of pilgrims visiting Rome and attending the Pope’s public audiences have greatly increased. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and other Church leaders have coined the phrase, “The Francis Effect,” which they use to describe an influx of attendees at weekly Masses since Pope Francis was elected.
While Time downplayed the “Francis effect” as lacking “hard evidence,” everyday American Catholics can feel the impact he has had on their Church. Each of us knows of someone who has started going back to Church since March 1st of this year, or has recently gone to confession for the first time in years. On last Sunday’s episode of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan told an anecdote about a girl she knew who considered dropping out of confirmation courses. She ended up finishing the courses and receiving the sacrament because she was inspired by Pope Francis.
Twitter and Facebook are constantly full of non-believers who are softening up to the Pope. “I’m not Catholic, but this guy is inspiring,” they say. Or, more often, “We like your Pope,” they will tell their Catholic friends.
Therein lies the challenge moving forward for Catholics. Pope Francis is not just “Person of the Year” because of his achievements during his first nine months as the Roman pontiff. He is bestowed the honor because he has the opportunity to touch souls across the globe over the course of his papacy. He is not just our Pope, he is Pope of the whole world.
2013 was the year that Pope Francis captured the world’s attention and admiration. 2014 and beyond will be the years in which Catholics of all walks of life must follow his example, take up their own apostolic work and lead people to Christ. Ultimately, Pope Francis’s goal is not to win accolades from magazines; his goal is to bring people to the Eucharist, where the mercy and love of God are most perfectly present. This is the goal of every Catholic around the world: to come into contact with the living Christ during our lifetime on earth, and to lead others toward an eternity in communion with Christ. This is the challenge that is set before our Pope — and each of us — as we move forward from a joyous 2013.
Christopher Crawford is Director of Pro-Life Ministry of GW Catholics at The George Washington University.