Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year on Wednesday, crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church while capturing the imagination of millions of people who had become disillusioned with the Vatican.

Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly—young and old, faithful and cynical—as has Pope Francis.   In his nine months in office, he has placed himself at the very center of the conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage the temptations of power.

At a time when the limits of leadership are being tested in so many places, along comes a man with no army or weapons, no kingdom beyond a tight fist of land in the middle of Rome but with the immense wealth and weight of history behind him, to throw down a challenge.  The world is getting smaller; individual voices are getting louder; technology is turning virtue viral, so his pulpit is visible to the ends of the earth.  When he kisses the face of a disfigured man or washes the feet of a Muslim woman, the image resonates far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

This is the third time the magazine has chosen a pope as its Person of the Year.  Time gave that honor to Pope John Paul II in 1994 and to Pope John XXIII in 1963.

Pope Francis beat out former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and gay rights activist Edith Windsor for the award.  Other finalists included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas.

“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 times.”

“If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the Pope is happy. If this choice of ‘Person of the Year’ means that many have understood this message, even implicitly, he is certainly glad.”

The Catholic Church is one of the oldest, largest and richest institutions on earth, with a following 1.2 billion strong, and change does not come naturally.  At its best it inspires and instructs, helps and heals and calls the faithful to heed their better angels.  But it has been weakened worldwide by scandal, corruption, a shortage of priests and a challenge, especially across the fertile mission fields of the southern hemisphere, from evangelical and Pentecostal rivals.  In some quarters, core teachings on divorce and contraception are widely ignored and orthodoxy derided as obsolete.  Vatican bureaucrats and clergy stand accused of infighting, graft, blackmail and an obsession with “small-minded rules,” as Francis puts it, rather than the vast possibilities of grace.  Don’t just preach; listen, he says. Don’t scold; heal.

And yet in less than a year, he has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.  Tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols—bread and wine, body and blood—so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices­ as gestures empty of the force of law.  He released his first exhortation, an attack on “the idolatry of money,” just as Americans were contemplating the day set aside for gratitude and whether to spend it at the mall.  This is a man with a sense of timing.  He lives not in the papal palace surrounded by courtiers but in a spare hostel surrounded by priests.  He prays all the time, even while waiting for the dentist.  He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a scuffed-up Ford Focus.  No red shoes, no gilded cross, just an iron one around his neck.  When he rejects the pomp and the privilege, releases information on Vatican finances for the first time, reprimands a profligate German Archbishop, cold-calls strangers in distress, offers to baptize the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, he is doing more than modeling mercy and ­transparency.  He is ­embracing complexity and acknowledging the risk that a church obsessed with its own rights and righteousness could inflict more wounds than it heals.  Asked why he seems uninterested in waging a culture war, he refers to the battlefield.  The church is a field hospital.  Our first duty is to tend to the wounded.  You don’t ask a bleeding man about his cholesterol level.

This focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment is not always associated with princes of the church, and has made him a rock star.

The giddy embrace of the secular press makes Francis suspect among traditionalists who fear he buys popularity at the price of a watered-down faith.  He has drawn attention to everything from his prayers for peace in Syria to his pointed attack on trickle-down economics, which inspired Jesse Jackson to compare him to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rush Limbaugh calling him a Marxist.  He attacks priests who won’t baptize children born out of wedlock for their “rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism.”  He declares that God “has redeemed all of us … not just Catholics.  Everyone, even atheists.”  He posed with environmental activists holding an anti-fracking T-shirt and called on politicians and business leaders to be “protectors of creation.”

None of which makes him a liberal—he also says the all-male priesthood is not subject to debate, nor is abortion, nor is the definition of marriage.  But his focus on the poor and the fact that the world’s poorest 50% control barely 1% of its wealth unsettles those who defend capitalism as the most successful antipoverty program in history.  You could argue that he is Teddy Roosevelt protecting capitalism from its own excesses or he is simply saying what Popes before him have said, that Jesus calls us to care for the least among us.

These days it is bracing to hear a leader say anything that annoys anyone.  Now liberals and conservatives alike face a choice as they listen to a new voice of conscience: Which matters more, that this charismatic leader is saying things they think need to be said or that he is also saying things they’d rather not hear?

In a very short time, a vast, global, and ecumenical audience has shown a hunger to follow him.  He truly should be called “the Man 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.

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