In choosing Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, Time magazine dared to commit an almost unthinkable act in modern-day journalism.
It chose to celebrate hope – and civility.
A key phrase in its long cover story, written by Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias: “This new Pope may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars.”
Time’s choice has launched countless critics, of course. I, too, lament that only five women have made the stand-alone cut. I understand why National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s runner-up finish set off a round of criticism steeped in disbelief from his defenders.
Nevertheless, I think Time got this one just right.
I am not Catholic and have been critical of the church for mishandling the pedophile sex scandal and its backward views of women and the gay community. There are always more battles to be won.
But Time’s decision to honor this gentle warrior for social and economic justice speaks to a national yearning.
Any journalist willing to talk to people outside the Beltway knows this to be true: The majority of citizens have had it with the state of discourse in this country, particularly in our nation’s capital. People are hurting, and they are desperate for reasons to hope.
As Time’s story noted, the pope is cannier than his gentle demeanor suggests:
“He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face. He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, ‘Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?’ Of gay people: ‘If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.’ To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite ‘is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ ”
And then he took on capitalism.
“We also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” he wrote. “Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
It’s enough to take our breath away.
Perhaps timing has informed my response. Earlier this week, I joined dozens of fellow journalists for an off-the-record conference to address incivility in the media. Convened in Washington, D.C., by the Newseum, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, we worked hard to define our core values as journalists and explore our influence – currently and moving forward – on the state of discourse in this country.
Sarika Bansal was one of the presenters. She is director of partnerships for the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports reporting that includes successful responses to social problems. After the conference, the mixed reactions to Time’s selection of Pope Francis prompted me to reach out to her.
What did she make of the critics, I wondered, particularly those championing Snowden?
“I understand that perspective,” she said. “The heroism we attach to whistleblowers and holding people in power accountable. But that shouldn’t be our only feedback mechanism.
“We tend to say, ‘If he isn’t doing anything wrong, what’s the point of covering him?’ We have a habit of laying out all that’s wrong but never give people a model for what’s working. ... If you’re covering what at least has some evidence of success, it can bridge a lot of divides.”
That, in a nutshell, appears to be what Pope Francis is doing. Certainly, that is true for me. My own reaction to the photo of him kissing the face of a disfigured man caught me off guard. I stared at that picture for a long time, wondering whether I – a woman of faith and a columnist who’s staked a career on writing about the unfortunate and disenfranchised – would have the courage to do that. To touch that man, to pull him close.
Surely, I was not the only journalist moved – perhaps shocked is the better word – by the sight of institutional power exercised so humbly. What if we trusted that small stirring in ourselves and recognized it as the thing that connects us to the people we cover and the audiences we are trying to reach?
As Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs wrote this week, “in less than a year, [Pope Francis] has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.”
Bravo to Time for having the guts – the civility, if you will – to celebrate this song of hope, which a hurting world has been longing to hear.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.