Pope Francis prays during the Christmas night mass in the Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Christmas Eve. His election as pope was named the No. 1 religion story of the year by religion writers. (Reuters)
Popes come and popes go, with a new pope elected every few years or decades.
Thus, when viewed through the lens of history, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was a stunning event in the history of Roman Catholicism and, thus, all of Western Christianity. He was the first man to resign St. Peter’s throne in 600 years. Surely this was the most important religion-news story of 2013?
But when seen through the lens of the mainstream press, the bookish Benedict’s exit was a mere ripple in the news flow compared to the tsunami of headlines inspired by the rise of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as the first Latin American pope. During his remarkable media honeymoon, Pope Francis has been humble and savvy, pragmatic and charismatic.
Most of all, this pope has shown that he wants a mission-minded church that balances a defense of Catholic doctrine with a renewed commitment to offering mercy and pastoral care to the poor, the powerless and those of little or no faith. He wants to build a church defined by its actions, not just by words.
To no one’s surprise, the election of Pope Francis was selected as the year’s No. 1 religion story by the journalists in the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the No. 2 story. Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.
But here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?
As the year came to a close, it appeared the pope’s attention was increasingly focused on the persecution of believers around the world, especially endangered Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and throughout the Middle East. In a sermon on Nov. 28, he even urged his listeners to recall that when people are forbidden to worship, and faith is driven from public life, the end times could be near.
“What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world,” he said, in remarks that drew little commentary from world media.
When this happens, explained Pope Francis, “religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no? Publicly it is not spoken about. The religious signs are taken down. The laws that come from the worldly powers must be obeyed. You can do so many beautiful things except adore God.”
The rest of the RNA Top 10 list included these events and trends:
3, In another 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for gay marriage in California and voided the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Supporters of gay marriage celebrated victories in other states as well, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to legalize same-sex marriage.
4, Legal battles continued in courts nationwide over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most nonprofit ministries to offer health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including “morning-after pills.” The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case brought by Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation led by conservative Christians who claim that the mandate violates their freedom of religious expression.
5, Battles continued in the Middle East over the political role of Islam, with violence escalating in Syria and continuing in Egypt — where the military ousted the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracked down on its Islamist supporters.
6, Nelson Mandela died at age 95 and was remembered as a prophet of nonviolence and reconciliation in South Africa.
7, Attacks on religious minorities continued around the world, including bloody attacks on Christians in Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Kenya.
8, A Pew Research Center survey found that more than 1 in 5 American Jews now claim no ties to Judaism as a faith. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.
9, Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America voted to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. While most evangelicals opposed this change, Catholic and Mormon leaders were divided.
10, Muslims joined others in condemning the Boston Marathon bombing committed by two young Muslim men who attended colleges in the area.
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.