WASHINGTON — There are really just two possible choices for person of the year. I want to say Pope Francis, but I’ve got to go with Edward Snowden.
The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and a whistle-blowing fugitive from American justice have just one thing in common: impact. Francis, by shifting his church’s focus to social justice, may change the world. But Snowden, by revealing the vast extent of government surveillance, already has.
Someday, perhaps, this ranking will be reversed. I hope it is, because the change that Francis advocates is more sweeping — and long overdue. The Catholic Church, despite its many problems, remains a powerful force around the globe. If its energies are directed away from the culture wars — and toward fighting poverty, inequality and injustice — the church can play a hugely influential role in shaping the new century.
I was a bit unsure about Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was chosen as the first Jesuit and first modern-era non-European to serve as pontiff. I lived In Argentina, his homeland, for four years as a Washington Post foreign correspondent. I knew that during the South American dictatorships of the 1970s and ‘80s, the church in Argentina — unlike in Chile, for example — had been cozy and complicit with the ruling generals.
The consensus of researchers who have examined Francis’ history is that he did not collaborate with the murderous ruling junta, which killed or “disappeared” at least 15,000 suspected leftists — but also that he did not openly confront the regime. It is tempting to see his subsequent career as an extended act of atonement, culminating in the dizzying months since his election to the papacy in March.
Francis declined to move into the opulent papal apartments, choosing instead to live in spartan rooms at a Vatican guesthouse. His acts of humility and compassion are so frequent that by now they seem almost commonplace — inviting three homeless men from the streets of Rome to share breakfast with him, for example, or washing the feet of young people living in a juvenile detention center.