Person of the age

Time’s article on Pope Francis explaining why he is the magazine’s Person of the Year made this observation at one point: “John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.”

That is probably why Francis has been able to do what he has done in so short a time. He has done it not because he was once a professor of theology but because he was once a janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.

If I recall right, somebody else did the same thing in his time not because he was a Pharisee but because he was a carpenter, a bouncer of merchants in the temple, an alchemist of heart and mind, and an imparter of lessons by way of parable.

Time’s choice of Pope Francis as Person of the Year is an inspired one, giving us to see that this year has been the worst of times and the best of times. This is a year that has seen the bitterest wars, the most crushing tragedies, and the most mind-boggling disasters. The last afflicting us more than others, the spectacle of the devastation of Tacloban continuing to haunt us and the world. But this is a year also that has seen the humbling of the exalted and the exaltation of the humble.

This has happened of late not just once but twice in quick succession. The first of course was the passing of Nelson Mandela which brought the world to a halt, three American presidents, one current and two ex, travelling from afar like the modern-day version of the Three Kings to pay their respects to a great man. A man who broke down the walls of a vast prison that existed as much in the mind as in physical space.

And then coming on its heels, Time has bestowed a great honor on Pope Francis, which is one of those rare times when the world can agree unreservedly with it. There was really only one choice: Pope Francis has stood head and shoulders above everyone this year. Someone who has broken down the walls of a vast prison that exists as much in the mind as in physical space.

What he has done in less than a year has been wide-ranging. My own appreciation of it is this:

Like a chemical technician, he has changed the chemistry of an institution that is host to believers that number more than the population of China. That is no mean feat, the Catholic Church having earned its designation, the “Rockn” far less for its seeming permanence but for its patent imperviousness to change, the institution calcifying into stone. Overnight it has pulled the rug out from under the Inquisitors who have contented themselves with defending the faith—and their earthly power—by burning heretics at the stake, metaphorically or literally. The shrillness with which our own Opus Dei types consigned the advocates of RH to hellfire shows so.

Overnight, Pope Francis restored the faith in his faith. To believe is not to avoid sin, it is to do good. To believe is not to save one’s soul, it is to save the world.

Like a janitor, he has swept the dust from our eyes to show how the other three-fourths live, which is in direst poverty, not unlike the denizens of the slums of Buenos Aires who cower in fear when gangs fight and grovel in want the rest of the time. Like a bouncer, he has locked horns with poverty, seeking to throw out its unwanted presence from the world. We do not lack for people who have shown a desire to push back poverty and are doing something about it. We do lack people who know the sting of poverty, who are driven by the atom of their being to try to end the scourge.

For the first time, we have the one person who is so removed by his exalted position from the cares of the world conscripting the world to meet the cares of the world.

And like a literature teacher, he has given us new insights into the human condition, he has given us new ways of looking at life.

The one story about Pope Francis that I’ve found truly moving is the one about him kissing a violently disfigured man and praying over him. The incident took place at St. Peter’s Square while he was attending to a flock of pilgrims. Toward the end of his general audience, a man of such grotesque appearance—he suffered from the same disease as the Elephant Man, his face and neck a ragged mass of gigantic warts and sundry protrusions, a monstrous vision Hollywood’s makeup department would have been hard put to conceive—came up to him. Without hesitation, Francis embraced him, kissed him on the cheek, and put his hand on his head in blessing.

The cameras caught it and Francis was later lauded for his compassion and kindness. I myself would not call it that. It was a natural and spontaneous gesture and I don’t know that Francis himself was fully aware of it. It never looked as though he fought his natural revulsion and brought himself to do what he did, it looked as though he didn’t even see the man’s disfigurement, or found it to be too trivial, incidental, superficial to the human presence in front of him. Compassion and kindness suggest looking down on someone, which the Pope seems incapable of, seeing others only as equals.

In this day and age of egotistical vanity and obsession with cosmetic beauty, he reminds us of the essence of things, of the core of things. This is one pope who gives whole new meanings to the phrase “Holy See.” Not unlike a predecessor who embraced lepers along with turning water into wine.

In fact, forget that he is the Pope, forget that he is the one person Catholics look up to as heaven’s representative on earth. Mind only that he is one incredibly decent person who puts us to shame by his boundless humanity. He keeps at this, he’ll be the person of the year for years to come.

He’ll be the person of the age.

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