POPE FRANCIS: Clearly Pope Francis was one of the outstanding figures of 2013, but not for the reasons we’ve been led to believe by the media. The media meme from the beginning posited that the new Pope was a “revolutionary” who meant to upend long-standing Church traditions. Esquire Magazine just named Pope Francis “Best Dressed Man of the Year” for his sartorial “progressive orthodoxy” (even though he dresses exactly like any pope of the last century and most Dominicans). None of this is why Francis is significant. In reality, the Pope has popularized what it means to be fully Catholic. Francis has made the deposit of Faith accessible and fun again. Coming out of the sex abuse crisis and the horrible press received by the Church, this is a staggering accomplishment in less than a year’s time. The photographic images of a Pope who cares for the disadvantaged and p oor explains much of his popular appeal. (Newsflash: most people are not sitting around reading his encyclical or exhortations.) What the public knows of Francis is confined to these images and the snippets of interviews he granted in 2013. There is a line common to fiction writers that is applicable here: what is not explicitly described the reader fills in with their imagination. This is what I believe has happened with Pope Francis. Endearing snapshots and headlines have created a Pope in each individual’s mind that may or may not conform to reality. The new year will reveal much about who Francis truly is and what he means to do in the Catholic Church.
Doctrinally Pope Francis has changed nothing—and I am doubtful that he will. Thus far it is his common man approach and simple enunciation of the Faith that has powerfully resonated in the pop culture. That will continue. But my guess is the positive press coverage may not. Like his predecessors, the moment that Francis begins to clearly defend the unpopular facets of the Faith that he is bound by his office to defend, Palm Sunday will draw to a close and the secular Sanhedrin will rise up to decry this Pope they had such high hopes for. Whatever Francis does it will be fascinating to watch together.
POPE BENEDICT XVI: The most significant and slighted figure of 2013 is without a doubt Pope Benedict. Without his historic resignation of the papal office in February, there would have been no Pope Francis. The gifts of Benedict to the Church will not be transparent for decades, but his theological clarity and supreme humility are already manifest. While Pope Francis is often cited for his humility, contrasted with a media caricature of Benedict, the former Pope’s witness should not be forgotten. The professorial Benedict, put aside his natural shy tendencies to embrace the global office thrust upon him eight years ago. He extended himself beyond his comfort zone for the good of the Gospel, which is what humility is all about, yes? He too embraced the disfigured and prayed with the disabled, though he never received the glowing press coverage of his successor. In fact Benedict was as attentive to the forgo tten and pronounced a nearly identical message on the economy, migrants, and life. Not that you would know any of that from the media accounts.
THE BIBLE MINI-SERIES: It was a good year for religion in America. Shattering all expectations, the highest rated miniseries of the year was Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s “The Bible.” The success of the miniseries convinced Hollywood that there might be an audience for religious epics again. In 2014, be on the lookout for Noah, Moses, the Virgin Mary, and assorted apostles at a cinema or plasma screen near you. As I recently told the Burnetts: “the tribe has spoken” and they want more religious stories, not less. Downey and Burnett have now extracted the Jesus’ story from their mini-series to create a two-hour theatrical release called “Son of God” scheduled to hit theatres in late February of 2014. It might be called the second coming of “The Bible”…
DUCK DYNASTY: Part of the allure of one of the most watched reality shows ever, Duck Dynasty, is it’s religious spine. Yes, the Robertson clan are uproariously funny, they are Louisianians (which makes them instantly lovable in my book), and, hey, Jack, Uncle Si is worth the price of admission alone. But it is the unity of this family and their deeply held beliefs that have drawn millions to this A&E series. Their family unity was on display when the patriarch, Phil Robertson recently ran afoul of some gay groups for an outspoken interview he granted to GQ. In reaction to Robertson’s colorful explanation of biblical teaching, A&E suspended him from the series. The family stuck together, threatening to pull the plug on the show if the network did not reinstate Phil. Viewers rallied to the Robertson’s side, protesting the censure, which many considered an attempt to stifle religious expression. As the year ended, A&E reversed itself, as did Cracker Barrel (which had pulled Duck Dynasty products from their shelves for a whole day), and the show goes on. Everyone is “Happy, Happy, Happy.”
THE ROYAL BABY: As dismissive as I usually am of all coverage of the royals, one story proved an exception. The birth of George Alexander Louis offered us with a nice summer diversion and focused the whole world on the wonders of a new life for a married couple. Mother Teresa once said that children are evidence that God has not abandoned us. The royals should take comfort in their latest addition…
BREAKING BAD: The “Breaking Bad” finale was a stunner. The series is to be saluted by showing the true wages of sin and unflinchingly demonstrating that bad actions lead to bad ends– no matter how much we may be pulling for a flawed protagonist. Great TV and masterful performances.
And now to the worst of 2013:
THE UNREPORTED SLAUGHTER: From Iraq to Sudan to Nigeria to Korea to Egypt to Syria, Christians were destroyed by the tens of thousands this past year. Yet their deaths barely made a dent in the news cycle. John Allen in his book on Christian persecution estimates that more than 150,000 Christians are martyred each year. And the slaughter continues. It is an ongoing tragedy that the Pope has called our attention to; urging all people of good will to petition their governments to end the bloodshed. You can count on the World Over to continue our 17 year tradition of covering religious persecution in the new year.
LOSING GIANTS: The worst part of any year are the great people that we lose in its passing. 2013 took some incredible people of talent, vision, and faith including: Dame Margaret Thatcher, James Gandolfini, Jean Stapleton, Annette Funicello, Jonathan Winters, Peter O’Toole, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Antonia Brenner, a Catholic nun who founded a ministry to prisoners in Tijuana. Their leadership and example will be missed…