If you had to name a “person of the year,” who would it be?  What would your criteria be?  This thought exercise is really another variation of the recent best/favorite/most-significant/top-five thread on this blog that I, for one, have really enjoyed.

Around this time every year, I fill out a “year in review” as a way of remembering significant things in the previous year.  One category is the public figure who most captured my imagination. This final category is similar to TIME Magazine’s long-time institution of naming as Person of the Year one of the year’s biggest newsmakers.  Yet so much in the news seems ephemeral, irrelevant, and abstract.  My entries in this category have tended to be men and women whose actions and words have pointed others towards the coming of God’s Kingdom amidst the ambiguous and chaotic political and economic realities that we find ourselves in.    The consequences of their actions seem as if they might abide the refining fires of the day of Christ’s coming.  Their “news” will last.  As Thoreau said, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

It just so happens that TIME’s choice of 2013 Person of the Year is also the figure who most captured my imagination this year: Pope Francis.  TIME has given this honor to two prior popes: John XXIII, who inaugurated the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, both of whom Francis will canonize in 2014.

Much has been written about this extraordinary man.  (If you need an introduction, the TIME article is a good place to start.)  Just the ways he has navigated and changed conventions in the papacy, from his papal name to his living arrangements, speak volumes.  As Vicar of Christ, he actually embodies the humility, vulnerability, and love embodied by Jesus.

I love his metaphor of the church as a field hospital in the midst of a battle instead of a belligerent in the battle.  The Catholic Church of the twentieth century was often a mighty fortress against the forces and floods of evil and ills.  Francis is turning that bulwark into a gateway that leads out of the battle and into the presence of God.  Like the stable in C.S. Lewis The Last Battle, the interior of this field hospital proves immeasurably larger than it appears from the outside.  Indeed we may eventually see that it transforms the whole battlefield.

Francis seems to be leading by theological gesture (as John Paul also did) more than by theological proclamation. Benedict was a brilliant theologian—I remember studying his work at Calvin—as was John Paul, whose “theology of the body” should and will remain important.  Francis has yet to make a comparable theological contribution, but the theological implications of his actions speak loudly. If John Paul II mastered television as a tool for making statements, Francis seems already to be mastering the internet.

His care and non-judgmentalism toward people who are gay and people who have had abortions while simultaneously affirming traditional Christian teachings about marriage and the sanctity of life have productively changed conversations about these divisive subjects. He has spoken out against the economic injustices of capitalism against the poor and non-human nature. He preaches and practices a way that goes far beyond the best of both mere “conservative” or “liberal/progressive” approaches.

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For honorable mentions, I want to highlight two high-profile leaders who resigned this past year.  Their acts of resignation show more courage, humility, and prudence rather than what we commonly refer to as “resignation.”

Pope Benedict XVI deserves a lot of credit for abdicating the papacy.  Whatever his reasons—and I don’t doubt that observing John Paul II in the last stages of senescence was a contributor—he made a bold statement about the meaning of the office of the papacy. It’s a human institution meant to serve the church, and if that can’t be done as it should, then it can be vacated.  Holding the office does not necessarily qualify the holder.  Conversely, neither does having superior qualifications validate certain offices.  While still a far cry from affirming the priesthood of all believers, Benedict’s act suggests that even the highest office of a church that traditionally has separated itself from the so-called “secular” realm is still rooted in the life of the world.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated this year in favor of her son Willem-Alexander. As head of state, Beatrix was much beloved in a way that the U.S. system doesn’t allow the President to be—perhaps a motherly version of the fatherly presence that the pope is in millions of Christians’ lives.  A Dutch man once told me that if the Netherlands decided to abolish the monarchy, Queen Beatrix would be elected the first President.  Beatrix abdicated as her mother Juliana and grandmother Wilhelmina did before her, suggesting that the monarchy (like the papacy) is an office for service rather than grasping power.  The Dutch monarchy does not come from a tradition of kingly divine rights or “l’état, c’est moi” as in England or France.  In fact, the Netherlands was a republic during its golden age and for over 200 years before being conquered by Napoleon.  (The 1581 Act of Abjuration declaring Dutch independence from Spain reads strikingly, in argument and sentiment, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776.)  Beatrix has shown how a state can be a “government of laws” yet still be personal.  Her service is a reminder that systems of government very different than the (often-overly-triumphalist) American one can deliver justice (or whatever the true role of government is) just as well or better.

1 Comment

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    So you praise monarchs and church dictators. Here we have a perfect example of American fetishization of gold-robed elites. Make no mistake, Pope Francis has made no substantive changes, only ones that look good in headlines and for the cameras. As you readily admit, the Church’s reactionary policies on abortion and LGBT people remain in place. And his organization is a force for obscurantism and oppression, a bureaucracy that oppresses and stifles meaningful political action. Humility and flashy displays of personal piety are fine when you command such a powerful throne.

    Calvin College’s community continues to be disappointing in its fealty to tradition and its worship of the powerful. Not to mention the constant spineless seeking for a “middle way” between reaction and progressive politics, which has a noble history going back to Calvin himself. He too despised the truly revolutionary parts of the Protestant Revolution, ultimately choosing to placate kings rather than support the liberation of the people.

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