Time Magazine’s selection of Pope Francis as Person Of The Year, announced this morning, is very smart publishing. But it’s also a pretty good illustration of what makes the honorific a perpetual subject of speculation and then semi-horrified analysis after the fact.
Time can’t have avoided noticing that Pope Francis has spent the first year of his papacy on an exceptionally successful media blitz. As I wrote in my piece on the Person Of The Year finalists on Monday, “ Francis has a remarkable gift for gestures both viral and substantive, whether he’s kissing a man with boils, sneaking out at night without his papal regalia to serve the homeless, letting slip that he used to work as a bouncer, or suspending a German bishop who’d authorized lavish renovations of his official residence in an effort to show that the Church is serious about corruption. It’s brilliant of Pope Francis to recognize that the brand of the Catholic Church — perhaps particularly with non-Catholics — depends substantially on how the person who occupies the Papacy is perceived by the world.” And indeed, Time wrote in the announcement of the citation that “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.” I can’t blame Time for wanting to get in on some of the clicks that Francis is inspiring. Person Of The Year is an incredibly important component of their year-long strategy.
And because Time is an international magazine, it absolutely makes sense for them to pick a figure who will inspire international newsstand sales. I may adore Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the case in which the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, but she’s a cult political figure, who I can’t imagine has national, much less international name recognition. Miley Cyrus is an American pop star who mostly inspires American outrage or praise. Jeff Bezos is an interesting innovator on any number of fronts, but he’s not as much of a cult figure as Steve Jobs was, or as much of a pop culture figure as Mark Zuckerberg. Ted Cruz is a major American political figure, but it’s not clear to me that the shutdown really did much for his career, and Time may not have wanted to be responsible for elevating him, and recognized that within the U.S., he would have been a polarizing choice.
I could go on and on. What it comes down to is that Catholicism is a world religion, and Francis is a figure with positive international appeal (though I can image one German bishop who is grumpily staying away from newsstands today). Bashar Assad would have been an important, if feel-bad choice. Pope Francis is both very famous and very easy to feel good about.
My problem with picking Pope Francis isn’t selecting him at all, but rather, selecting him this year. It’s absolutely true that Francis has radically rebranded the papacy in a relatively short time. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely erased years of justifiable fury over clerical sexual abuse, or the lavish lifestyles of some priests. And while Francis has talked about a Catholicism that focuses more on compassion and ministering to Catholics in their lived experiences rather than condemning for their failures of compliance, achieving that vision is a long-term project.
Time might have been able to honor Francis for both his work restoring the Church’s public image for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and for pushing that vision forward, depending on the outcome of the forthcoming synod on the family next year. As much as it’s satisfying to read about the Pope’s personal kindness and his life before he entered the Church, it’s ultimately going to be more significant for Francis to start pushing change downward in the Church hierarchy than for him to act on an individual level. I’d have loved to see Time have a little patience and honor Francis on the merits as well as on the early buzz.
But maybe that wouldn’t be the point. Naming Francis Person Of The Year after the synod closes means that Time would have to take a position on the results of the synod, a citation that might not appeal to Catholics and non-Catholics en masse in the same way an endorsement of Francis’ personal style does. When Pope John XXIII was selected as Time’s Person Of The Year in 1962 (the year in which he also volunteered as a mediator in the Cuban Missile Crisis), the magazine singled him out because “history has a long eye, and it is quite possible that in her vision 1962’s most fateful rendezvous took place in the world’s most famous church — having lived for years in men’s hearts and minds. That event was the beginning of a revolution in Christianity,” specifically, the convening of the Second Vatican Council on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world.
But the magazine notably didn’t follow up with a similar honor for Paul VI, who took over the Council after John XXII’s death, and carried it through to its conclusion. You might think that celebrating the Mass in vernacular tongues rather than in Latin, or drawing a direct connection between war and inequality in the Papal Constitution Paul released, which declared that “This peace on earth cannot be obtained unless personal well-being is safeguarded and men freely and trustingly share with one another the riches of their inner spirits and their talents,” would be worth a magazine cover. Sometimes, it can be easier to give accolades for unifying promise than for divisive, but important, accomplishments.