AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, Pope Francis was named the Person of the Year by Time magazine, which hails him as the people's pope. He was chosen as the individual who's had the greatest impact on the world and the news. Since his election in May, Pope Francis has shaken up the Catholic Church, emphasizing mercy toward the poor over Catholic doctrine and dogma. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The images of Pope Francis in his first nine months in Rome have been striking. There he is embracing a horribly disfigured man. There he is washing the feet of women and Muslims on Holy Thursday. And there's the pontiff driving a Ford Focus and living in the simple Vatican guesthouse, instead of breezing around the Apostolic Palace in a Mercedes. Former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first non-European pope, the first Jesuit, and the first to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor.
POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language speaking)
BURNETT: Visiting Brazil in July, the pope told slum dwellers that a society cannot be harmonious and happy if it marginalizes and abandons part of itself, the poor. John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, related an incident that he witnessed during that same visit to Rio de Janeiro last summer. Garvey says he was camping on the beach with some of his university students when the pope rode past in his white Vatican jeep. Someone in the ecstatic crowd handed him a gourd of mate, a popular drink in Latin America.
JOHN GARVEY: And he started drinking it. And my first reaction was, gosh, that's really dangerous, you know. Somebody could hand him a jar of poison and he'd drink it. My second thought was, you know, this is exactly what the church needs. It needs somebody who is in touch with the people in a way that he's willing to risk his life just to break through barriers like that.
BURNETT: Time magazine wrote in its cover story, 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 at all. In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church above doctrinal police work so important to his predecessors.
In his first major apostolic document, the pope condemned the idolatry of money and exhorted his church to go out on the streets instead of clinging to its own security. David Gibson, who covers Catholicism for Religion News Service, says Francis not only practices what he preaches but he has urged his bishops to do the same.
DAVID GIBSON: He denounced what he called airport bishops, those guys who are sort of travelling around to conferences and to the Vatican all the time, burnishing their credentials, rather than going out and being with the people on the margins - not just the folks in pews, being with the people on the margins, so they come back smelling of the sheep, in one of his favorite lines.
BURNETT: Pope Francis is not universally adored. Conservatives and liturgical traditionalists view him as somewhat dangerous. His harping on the cruel excesses of capitalism and on simple evangelism over the Latin mass and elaborate Catholic rituals have alarmed some observers. Again, journalist David Gibson.
GIBSON: Pope Francis is definitely not with that crowd and they're very, very upset.
BURNETT: Whether he advocates fundamental change within the 2,000-year-old institution remains to be seen. Francis has not moved on the church's opposition to women priests, abortion or gay marriage. Though he did admonish his brethren, it's not necessary to talk about those issues all the time. Time magazine's runner-up for Person of the Year was NSA leaker Edward Snowden. John Burnett, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.