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?
The heart is a strong muscle; he’s proposing a rigorous exercise plan. And in a very short time, a vast, global, ecumenical audience has shown a hunger to follow him. 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, Pope Francis is TIME’s 2013 Person of the Year.
If we had to choose a person of the year, it’d be Pope Francis, and Edward Snowden would be our other choice. Snowden and Francis have each had a big impact on humanity and the world community in 2013. Both of them have demonstrated courage and resourcefulness. Francis has taken over as the head of one of the world’s oldest and largest religious institutions, the Catholic Church, while Edward Snowden has taken on the world’s most powerful signals intelligence outfit, the National Security Agency, which has been operating above the law for years.
Popes have been chosen as TIME’s Person of the Year before; one could argue Francis was the safe choice. But the Catholic Church has not had a non-European pope for centuries. It has not had a pope in recent years who put the needs of his flock above theology. Francis is a true minister, not just a pontiff, and that is what makes him such a great leader, worthy of our respect.
The papacy is mysterious and magical: it turns a septuagenarian into a superstar while revealing almost nothing about the man himself. And it raises hopes in every corner of the world—hopes that can never be fulfilled, for they are irreconcilable. The elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass and the devout young woman who wishes she could be a priest both have hopes. The ambitious monsignor in the Vatican Curia and the evangelizing deacon in a remote Filipino village both have hopes. No Pope can make them all happy at once.
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. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.”
In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church — the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world — above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.
For so many people, Francis is the pope they have long yearned for.
I recently joined the now-retired pastor who founded my family’s parish community for his eightieth birthday celebration. I asked him what he thought of Pope Francis. He grinned and told me, “He should have come fifty years ago!”
I wasn’t around fifty years ago, but I agree: Pope Francis’ arrival was long overdue. Now that we have him, I hope that we get to keep him for a long while. At least a decade, and hopefully much longer than that.