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Philadelphia Vatican Watchers Think Time’s Choice Was Good One

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Mark Abrams Mark Abrams
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By Mark Abrams and Steve Patterson

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Now that Time magazine has announced its choice of Pope Francis as its “Person of the Year” (see related story),  local reaction is pouring in.

While some might be surprised at the selection of the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, elected only nine months ago, most people with whom we’ve spoken locally say it’s not a shock at all.

Bill Madges, a theology professor at St. Joseph’s University, says the historic steps that Pope Francis has taken to refocus the church and its mission have been profound.

“I think it’s really his message of service to the poor and the marginalized, his message of mercy, something that the world really needs both of — not only in the world of religion and the relationship between religions, but also in the world of politics,” he says.

Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia journalist who covers the papacy, the Vatican, and church affairs, says Pope Francis has, in a real sense,  broken down the “Berlin Wall” of the world, “in reaching people and touching hearts and giving everybody who’s in the church — and not just the ordained or church leaders but all Catholics — a real reason to look at ourselves and say are we doing the best we can in terms of spreading the faith and witnessing to it.”

And Susan Matthews of the Philadelphia-based organization Catholics for Change, says Time recognized a true leader whose actions speak much louder than his words.

“It’s more his approach that’s revolutionary, not so much what he’s saying,” Matthews tells KYW Newsradio.  “Nothing is counter to our existing doctrine, it’s just a new approach.  Or, should I say, a really old approach — a Christlike approach.”

Leaders from the Philadelphia Archdiocese celebrated the move by calling Francis’ message “unique for our time.”

“It says something to Catholics and to people everywhere not just here in the United States but all throughout the world,” said Father Dennis Gill with the Archdiocese. “This is not just a person who’s popular, it’s a person who has something to say about the way all of us live our lives.”

Time’s editors agree and are tapping into that curiosity.

In his first few months he’s criticized the Catholic Church on their focus, challenged parishioners on world poverty, celebrated interfaith dialogue with Jews and Muslims, pushed for an increased role for women in the church and said of homosexuality: “Who am I to judge them?”

St. Joseph University Theology Professor Phillip Cunningham says Francis’ focus on poverty and his willingness make waves and change the conversation are exactly what the church needs.

“I think this is very much an imitation of Jesus Christ and obviously that would be very positive for the Catholic Church,” Cunningham said. “The church exists to bring Christ to the world today. So the fact that the Pope is making that more vivid and more potent, that has to be a good thing.”

Cunningham says the Pope’s progressive stances are helping to push the agenda forward in many ways and the Time nomination is an accurate reflection on a man dedication to reformation.

“If the criteria is someone who has immediately caught the world’s attention, who has already transformed attitude and expectations to a considerable degree and who holds the potential for doing that even more so in the future… than I think he’s an apt candidate and makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Time had considered others for its “Person of the Year” recognition, including NSA leaker Edward Snowden, but its editors decided that the leadership Pope Francis has demonstrated in calling for mercy, forgiveness, and attention to the poor, challenges all, not just those who identify as Catholics.

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