Eileen Burke-Sullivan, S.T.D., Barbara Reardon Heaney Chair in Pastoral Liturgical Theology and associate professor of Theology, shared her thoughts on why the choice of Pope Francis as TIME magazine’s person of the year was not a surprise to her.
Some thoughts on Pope Francis as TIME’s Person of the Year:
It is certainly not a surprise that Time would choose Pope Francis as their Person of the Year, other religious leaders have held the title, including several popes – and one, Pope John Paul II was person of the year more than once during his long pontificate. The choice indicates a secular acceptance of the important influence that religious leaders can offer the whole world, not just their own religious adherents.
The choice this year also recognizes the genuine power of changing emphasis and tone or style, as a different way of changing “teachings.” Teachings are teachings because they are repeated and focused upon, emphasized, and given precedence. By shifting attention to the importance of the poor, Pope Francis has not changed the content of teaching, but he has changed the weight of teaching. By putting precedence on behavior that is compassionate and nonjudgmental-of-persons the Pope has re-emphasized the dignity and worth of each human person, a basic Catholic Church teaching that too often is misunderstood. His “style” doesn’t change the content of teaching but by giving it a reasonable and compassionate context, invites reasonable people to pay attention to it as one of a number of consequences of following Jesus.
By developing structures that are more transparent in regard to money and power, the Pope has also given believability to the social doctrine of the Church, which stresses the importance of social systems to accomplish great good or great evil. His challenge to political and economic structures that devaluate whole groups of human persons (the poor, the marginalized, those discounted by a culture of haves and having) is not new or changed Catholic teaching. He stands on the shoulders of the Second Vatican Council and his immediate papal predecessors. By emphasizing and enforcing practical transparency in the institutions of the Catholic Church, however, he makes the teachings easier to believe.
Above all, it seems from TIME magazine’s own reasons for choosing Pope Francis, that he has attracted the attention of the world, both Catholic and not Catholic, in a way that is transforming the culture wars in many countries, not just the United States. In his exercise of joy and enthusiasm, he gives credibility to THE central doctrine of the Christian faith – the victory of Christ over sin and death has been won – and to its central invitation: come participate in that victory by the way you live your life in confidence and joy.
Perhaps TIME has captured the “wave” of gratitude that people the world over seem to be feeling for being given a reason to believe in God and have hope again – even hope that a 2000 year-old movement/institution really is guided by God’s Spirit, and when responding to that Spirit does lots of things right for humanity and for God’s created order.