Why Time chose Pope Francis for Person of the Year

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There’s nearly as much speculation about that as there is about who this man is.

Time explains their choice here, and it’s a lengthy article that reveals as much about Time’s editorial staff as it does the figure they chose to highlight this year for his impact on the world.

The papacy is mysterious and magical: it turns a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself.

The term “superstar” just doesn’t fit, though that’s the language of pop culture used to pop theology.

But 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…

And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator.

Another odd description of the humble man who sits in the Chair of Peter.

He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face. He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Through these conscious and skillful evocations of moments in the ministry of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, this new Pope may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars.

Which his predecessors devoted their pontificates to doing by trying to implement the changes called for by the Second Vatican Council, mainly bringing the Church into greater engagement with the modern world. If they were eloquently teaching it, and trying their best to guide the faithful through it, Francis is out there saying ‘let’s do it.’

Which certainly throws modern culture on its heels.

And so Francis signals great change while giving the same answers to the uncomfortable questions. On the question of female priests: “We need to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” Which means: no. No to abortion, because an individual life begins at conception. No to gay marriage, because the male-female bond is established by God. “The teaching of the church … is clear,” he has said, “and I am a son of the church, but”—and here he adds his prayer for himself—“it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”

If that prayer should be answered, if somehow by his own vivid example Francis could bring the church into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents—agreeing to disagree about issues that divide them while cooperating in the urgent mission of spreading mercy—he might unleash untold good.

Especially if the media writing things like that realize they are among the critics who give voice often to the dissidents, groups not known for seeking a relationship with the Church or show a willingness to respectfully engage on issues that divide them. But watching Francis, they’re learning how.

They’re still getting him wrong though, as Time did even in the early hours of this story’s release. Terry Mattingly at Get Religion caught a glaring slip in Time’s explanation about honoring Francis, one that Fr. James Martin caught and tweeted:

Salute Time for nominating the Pope as Person of the Year.
Lament it’s for “rejection of church dogma.” He has not.

Further down in the post, Mattingly notes that Time originally wrote:

The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and rejection of church dogma and luxury.

And then the magazine quickly caught (after being alerted to) the significant error on that statement, and issued this:

Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested that Pope Francis rejected some church dogma. He does not.

And he will not. So let’s see how long the media keep paying this kind of attention to him and what he says, and the “vivid example” he is setting. And whether they stay interested in following Francis.

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