Pope Francis named Time Magazine 'Person of the Year'

Pope Francis has been chosen by the editors at Time Magazine as their "Person of the Year." It's an interesting choice, given the pathological hatred of the Catholic church on the part of some gays.

But Francis has struck all the right notes in his critiques of modern society and liberals have watched approvingly:

How do you practice humility from the most exalted throne on earth? 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 central 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.

In order to be elected to the Throne of St. Peter, one must possess uncanny political skills - walking a delicate line between self-promotion and humility. Francis has made being meek and humble cool. He has turned symbolism into power, softening the edges of what is still a very conservative church by taking the focus off doctrine and putting it on people.

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, he says. Our first duty is to tend to the wounded. You don't ask a bleeding man about his cholesterol level.

Time calls him a "rock star." But I wonder how long his symbolic papacy can maintain any faith in his leadership. Symbols are fine but changing people's lives is better. We ooh and ah at the celebrity nature of the Francis papacy in much the same way the world went gaga over Princess Diana. She, too, was largely about symbolism, but in the end, she accomplished very little of substance. She brought comfort to the afflicted and publicity to some causes, but as far as concrete change, nothing much happened. Francis is in danger of experiencing something similar.

Critiques of capitalism are fine. Popes are supposed to rail against wealth and privilege. But unlike John Paul II who also decried capitalism's excesses while excoriating the soul-destroying nature of Marxism, Francis has a blind spot when it comes to alternatives. Given his background, that's not likely to change.

Naming Francis Person of the Year is something of a stretch. But given how the influence of the magazine itself has waned in recent years, it really doesn't matter much.

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