South Africa

Daily Maverick’s International Person of the Year 2013 Runner-Up: Pope Francis

By Ranjeni Munusamy 12 December 2013

If there is anything the outpouring of grief over the death of Nelson Mandela has shown, it is that the world desperately needs a hero. Pope Francis did not set out to be one. He just wanted to be the guy who did things differently. In nine short months, Pope Francis has overhauled the austere image of the Catholic Church, located it in contemporary world affairs and tackled controversies that have bogged down the church and tattered its image. He has been declared Time’s Person of the Year and Forbes ranks him as the fourth most powerful person in the world. His impact on the world, and certainly on the 1.2 billion Catholics, has been immense. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February was a seismic event in the Catholic Church; it had been unheard of for 600 years. His resignation opened the way for a modernisation of one of the oldest institutions in the world. From the moment Jorge Mario Bergoglio walked out on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis, greeting the world with the words “Buona Sera”, he set off a process of reform in the church.

By taking on the name “Francis”, he styled himself after the saint known for championing the interests of the poor, his humbleness, and simplicity. Pope Francis eschewed the lavish trappings of the Vatican and refuses to be concealed behind its walls. He relishes every opportunity to mingle with ordinary people, blessing, hugging and talking to those who flock to St Peter’s Square.

Early on in his papacy, he shocked conservatives in the church by washing and kissing the feet of ten male and two female juvenile offenders during the Holy Thursday service before Easter. There is also an iconic image of him embracing a severely disfigured man, covered with boils.

Pope Francis’s public statements have heralded the possibility of radical changes in the Catholic Church. He said the church should not to be obsessed with “small-minded rules” and should instead focus on compassion rather than condemnation when dealing with sensitive issues like abortion, gay rights and contraception.

His statements on homosexuality were particularly staggering. He responded to questions about the Vatican’s alleged gay lobby, by saying: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

He also raised eyebrows by saying the “mercy of God has no limits” and encompassed even non-believers – suggesting that even atheists can go to heaven.

Then, in a 50,000 word statement on economic justice, Pope Francis denounced the “idolatry of money” in society and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny”.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

The Vatican’s own finances have come under forensic scrutiny and the pope expelled a free-spending German Bishop after a 31 million-euro price tag for the bishop’s new residence was exposed. His most welcome move has been the establishment of a sex abuse commission to provide advice on protecting children from sexually abusive priests and helping existing victims.

Australia’s Ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, calls Pope Francis “the new X factor in global affairs”. He has an active interest in the crisis in Syria, has instructed his bishops to draw up with a plan for him to engage on the issue of human trafficking in the world, and has highlighted the plight of refugees from Africa and the Middle East fleeing to Europe.

“The Francis effect” has not only re-energised the Catholic Church but is making the global community sit up and pay attention. No other religious leader in modern time has been able to rank amongst the most powerful world leaders and impact on global thinking.

In nine months, Pope Francis has gone from an unheard of Cardinal from the slums of Buenos Aires to one of the most influential people in the world. DM

Photo: Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito



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