Though the TIME people swear up and down that being named Man of the Year “isn’t supposed to be an honor,” it’s clear they’re perfectly happy to allow it to be misinterpreted that way if it moves more magazines. Such is the case with this year’s pick.
In his 40 weeks on the Throne of St. Peter, Pope Francis has proven himself to be that most exotic of creatures, long-anticipated but rarely delivered: a liberal pope. From his famous shrug on the morality of homosexuals (“who am I to judge?” he nonchalantly quipped; a quip TIME’s Brandon Ambrosino speculates “might go down as the expression of public humility that singlehandedly saved the church”) to his fiery denunciation of 21st century capitalism (“a new tyranny“) to his common and humble style (including the selfie seen round-the-world), Francis’ rejection of the staid, uptight conservatism of the Vatican — both stylistically and ideologically — has provoked a renaissance of interest in the church, including an observable spike in attendance, and a notable softening of rhetoric from even the harshest of critics. For anyone under 35, who has known only conservative, status quo-hugging popes, Francis has proven that another approach to the job is indeed possible.
Distractify has a charming list of the top 19 liberal, or just decent and affecting things Francis has done since his election in March. I’d defy anyone to not be moved by at least one of them.
For me, it was #3, Francis’ tender hug of Vinicio Riva, a horribly, almost impossibly disfigured man from northern Italy. Mr. Riva’s face is so nightmarishly grotesque it’s the sort of thing that will haunt your thoughts for a long time, especially the thoughts of someone as squeamish as me. Imagine a life where that is the default reaction of everyone you will ever meet. And then imagine someone, a pope, whose first instinct upon seeing such a person is to embrace him. “I thought he wouldn’t give him back to me, he held him so tightly,” said his aunt, who was there.
That one gesture is such a heroic act of tolerance of the sort very few of us will ever muster. True tolerance, after all, is not measured by the low bar many of us conveniently set for ourselves, which is to say, merely being more comfortable than a bigot around people who are obviously non-threatening and ordinary — a gay uncle, for instance, or an Indian cab driver — but rather consciously choosing to endure and empathize with those who actually frighten or upset you.
I don’t doubt there are many people in this world who care for men as disfigured as Mr. Riva every day, and they are heroes too. But the respect and fearlessness that’s so ordinary to them is a value that deserves to be spread, and modelled publicly and visibly as an achievable standard for others. And that’s what Francis has done.
Now, the world has Francis skeptics, to be sure. The most virulent, far-left critics of Catholicism, for instance, will never allow themselves to muster kind words for a pope who does anything less than abolish Catholicism itself. To that end, even though Francis has criticized his church’s “obsession” with same-sex marriage and abortion, accepted the premise that atheists can go to heaven, and encouraged a shift back to issues of inequality and charity as the central tenants of his brand of Christianity, the fact that he has not yet gone all the way, and — in the only-slightly-facetious words of one of my liberal friends — “instituted an all-lesbian clergy” guarantees some will always remain unsatisfied.
On the right, meanwhile, critics have blasted the Pope’s economic philosophy (Francisonomics?) as a simplistic and dated anti-capitalist critique — “pure Marxism,” in the words of Rush Limbaugh. The National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru (one of the few non-Catholics working at that magazine, it seems) penned a long rebuttal in Bloomberg the other day complaining that Francis’ supposedly high-minded criticisms of the dangers of an unrestrained free-market are really just straw man arguments against a “caricature” of capitalist society that neither exists nor is being proposed.
Then there are those, on both right and left alike, who simply consider the man overrated. Pope Benedict XVI denounced homophobic bigotry too, but got little credit from the left. Despite his famous anti-Communist activism, Jon Paul II was also a strong critic of capitalism, but that’s conveniently forgotten by the right. All popes, similarly, do humble photo-ops now and then as part of their job — the effacing feet-washing that earned Francis a flurry of positive press is actually a very longstanding papal tradition, for instance — and Francis certainly did not invent the idea of smiling and hugging children, though you can sometimes be excused for thinking so.
It would be a mistake however, to merely evaluate Francis’ worth on his willingness to make a couple “historic” gestures or break this-or-that precedent. It is the consistent theme of his habits, the entirety of that Distractify list, that makes this new pope such a relevant figure for our time. Unlike many of his predecessors, he appears to be a man with a genuine desire to serve as a spiritual leader for all of mankind, rather than the insular, retreating boss of a single denomination. His messages of humility and respect are universally compelling, and convey a message of truth that’s accessible and powerful even if you haven’t done the Church’s required reading. His is a return to the universality of Christianity that stems from the universality of Christ’s own simple message of decency and love — a message that has slowly been forgotten as maintenance of Christianity’s public brand has fallen into the dirty hands of politicians, charlatans, and bigots.
Man of the Year is not supposed to be an honor, they say. But that’s a shame. Pope Francis deserves one.