Last December Time magazine had little choice when they chose Pope Francis as Person of the Year. Who else among the living has such a standing? Right now, no one as I see it. 

First, some disclaimers are in order. I am not a Catholic, no longer a Presbyterian as was my family heritage, and not aligned with any religious organization. Depending on the day, I could be a heathen, or a pagan admiring the sun or my little Mickey Mantle shrine, or just completely uninterested in any religious affiliation or label as I have explained at some length elsewhere. Tragedy brought the issue into focus for me. 

Every world religion is a minority group, including the largest, Catholicism, with 1.2 billion members, or about 17 percent of the world’s population. Interestingly, people who are unaffiliated with any religious group make up about 16.3 percent of the world’s population. 

Size of major religious groups, 2010. (Source)

The Global Religious Landscape. Pew Research: Religion & Public Life Project. (Source)

But I like Pope Francis a lot, more for what he represents than what his church represents. It turns out, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reported in a Los Angeles Times article published on the day of Time’s announcement, December 11, 2013, a majority of U.S. residents polled feel about the same as I do, with 91 percent viewing him positively or very positively, and only five percent having a negative view of him.

On the other hand, the Catholic church got a 36 percent positive and a 17 percent negative rating. Additionally, according to this NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “U.S. Catholics approve of the pope more than they do the Catholic Church itself.” Now I know some Catholics who may be a bit upset by these results, but I’m just the messenger who’s trying to put this story in context.

Pope Francis’s humility, his life of service to the less fortunate, his lack of pretense and affectation, and his disdain for creature comforts of the privileged often at the expense of the poor—all these things set him apart on the world stage today. He is such an overdue breath of fresh air rising from the musty and sometimes stifling Roman Catholic Church. Okay, some of those Catholics I mentioned above may feel upset with me over the previous sentence, but it helps explain why Pope Francis is held in higher regard than the church he leads.

While another eighty-seven years or so remain in this century, I think there are good reasons to think Pope Francis could be chosen as Person of the Century. But if so, he has a lot more work to do.

For those of you with children or grandchildren who would like to see one of them chosen Person of the Century instead, here are some things I think would qualify them to beat out Pope Francis for this recognition:

  • Lead a cultural revolution that would end all wars forever by making countries realize that going to war is a disastrous course of action to reach national goals. Period. This would result in a drastic reduction in arms, leaving military forces only to render humanitarian aid in times of natural disasters. Small arms might be needed on rare occasions to keep the peace, as in the cases of rabid soccer and football fans that sometimes riot when they win, or looters who have far more justification than nutcase sports fans.
  • Lead a cultural revolution that would restore environmental harmony by reversing climate change and achieving sustainable population growth. This would require governments, politicians, religious leaders, and everyone else to be a lot smarter than we are today. To achieve a sustainable population, churches and governments will need to give complete freedom to women regarding their reproductive choices. Dogma are not needed, freedom is. Women choose to have fewer children as a result of education, not just freedom to decide; also condoms and other methods of birth control need to be made available. 
  • Lead a cultural revolution that is based on acceptance of ethnic diversity and religious diversity. Such a revolution would end the desire of followers of any particular ethnic or religious group to kill the followers of another, or those who don’t find religion to be relevant to their lives.

Other initiatives that may qualify one for Person of the Century could include conquering major classes of deadly diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Still others could include insuring individual freedom, universal education, and economic opportunity for the masses of humanity.

Pope Francis has opened some windows that have been stifling people for centuries. He has more to open, as do the rest of us. 

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