Being endowed with more than a pinch of common sense, Papa Bergoglio is unlikely to allow his appearance on the cover of Time magazine as “person of the year” to go to his head.
He need look no further than the list of Persons of Time Past. Since 1927, every elected American President has appeared, apart from Herbert Hoover, who presided over the 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Most of them appeared twice, even Tricky Dick, who was Man of the Year two years running.
Imaginative choices are not Time’s strong suit, which probably explains why bigwigs like Joseph Stalin and Deng Xiaoping also appeared twice. Out and out villains – even though the Person of the Year is supposed to have most “affected the news and our lives, for good or ill” – are rare. Hitler — arguably the person who has most affected the world for ill — appeared in 1938 when he still had a handful of admirers in the US. One exception in 1936 was Mrs Wallis Simpson (“you can never be too thin or too rich”) who seduced King Edward VIII.
Nor does Time court controversy. The most disputed topics of the last 30 years — climate change, evolution and atheism — are unrepresented.
The others on this year’s shortlist included Barack Obama (for a third time?), Miley Cyrus (for twerking?), Jeff Bezos (for buying the Washington Post and not Time?), Kathleen Sebelius (for screwing up Obamacare?), and Hassan Rouhani (where is the brand recognition in American supermarkets?).
That left Syrian President Bashar Assad (we don’t do villains), Senator Ted Cruz (we don’t do controversy), gay rights icon Edith Windsor (we don’t do unknowns), and Edward Snowden (but he leaked to the opposition, not Time).
So the choice of Pope Francis was a nolo contendere. He had a great back story: a modest background, involvement in Argentina’s Dirty War, and the first Pope from the Americas. He has shaken up the Vatican bureaucracy, ruffled the feathers of Tea Party activists and showed some sympathy for homosexuals. He has a great smile and a folksy manner. With world-wide brand recognition, his photo on the front page would guarantee sales. For the editors of Time, it must have been a no brainer.
But if they really understood the plans of the new Pope, would they have been so enthusiastic?
First of all, he is impossible to pigeonhole. He is neither liberal nor conservative. In the language of American constitutional law, Pope Francis is an “originalist”. He wants to strip away the ideological scaffolding which sometimes conceals the beauty of the portrait of the founder.
Pope Francis is not the Barack Obama of the Vatican, an amiable and attractive personality whose policies are as clear as a Rohrsach inkblot. He has a script – the Gospels – and he wants all Catholics to follow it. Mercy and compassion for the underprivileged are prominent elements in the script, the ones which the editors of Time warm to.
What seems to elude their attention is another element — the new Pope’s fervent call to evangelism. A few decades ago, he might have used the word “proselytism”, although this term has been sullied by association with rigid fundamentalism. But not the reality. “How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!” he says in his latest document, The Joy of the Gospel.
In other words, he wants the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics (all Christians, really) to take their Bibles seriously. Christ says, “Go out to all the world and proclaim the Good News”. “So what are we waiting for?” says Pope Francis. “The immense numbers of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent.”
Imagine if everyone who buys Time magazine were to buy into Pope Francis’s message. Very quickly the world would be a very different place – politically, socially and economically. The editors probably had in mind a uncontroversial, feel-good cover. They have ended up as fellow travellers in a revolution.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.