Time's 'Person of the Year' has moved fast to rebrand Catholicism

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Pope Francis has only been in charge of the Catholic church since March, but he's made quite an impact in just nine months. And today, Time Magazine honored him as its "Person of the Year."

Tom Reese: Personally, I think it's a great choice.

Werman: Tom Reese is a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, and a Jesuit priest, like Pope Francis.

Reese: In a sense what he's done is he's rebranded Catholicism. I think the Harvard Business School is gonna be looking at this for years to come. He has changed people's attitudes toward the Catholic church. He has presented the gospel message in a much more positive way. He's emphasized the love, the compassion of Jesus Christ and he's called on the church to be a reconciler, a community builder, rather than something that's divisive. And it's like suddenly your mother is no longer nagging you, but she's giving you a hug.

Werman: If you seem to be suggesting that the rebranding is a positive thing, I think no everybody agrees.

Reese: Well, there's alway naysayers, but you know, if you look at the public opinion polls, we've never seen higher rates of you know, positive attitudes towards the pope. It's off the charts. Only four percent of Catholics have a negative view of this pope. Politicians in Washington would kill for these kinds of numbers. It's only the very small, negative, conservative elite, you know, the talk show type folks that are upset because he no longer is making the Catholic church, you know, the Republican party of prayer. He says no, we've got a bigger agenda.

Werman: I gather a very small pocket of very liberal Catholics would also have some criticism of the pope.

Reese: You're absolutely right. I mean it's the most liberal and the most conservative who aren't happy. The liberals, most liberals want, you know, they want change and they want it now. They want women's liberation now, they want change in the teaching of birth control now. You know, they're unhappy, but I think they're a lot happier with this pope then they've been with previous popes.

Werman: Clearly a shift in tone and emphasis from this new pope, but what concretely has he changed yet in a way that touches and changes the lives of ordinary people. For example, what about confronting the legacy of child abuse in the church?

Reese: Yes, I think you know, changing the culture of the church is really a substantial change. He's modeling what it means to be a good bishop, a good priest, a good Catholic...to be loving and compassionate. And for victims of sexual abuse that means getting out in front and telling these people how sad, how sorry the Catholic church is for what happened to them. And to try and help them in their healing.

Werman: What were you thoughts during the eulogies for Nelson Mandela this past week turned a lot to the modeling of this new pope.

Reese: Well, I mean think what Nelson Mandela did in the political realm is the same that the pope is trying to do in the religious realm. Be a reconciler, be a person who brings people together, be a person who talks about issues of justice and reconciliation. This is what the world needs, not the divisive partisan politics that we see in Washington and see around the world.

Werman: Tom, let's be blunt for a moment because Time's Person of the Year magazine cover is a decision that's publicity driven basically to sell more magazines. Any more thoughts on the pope being on the same short list as Bashar al Assad and Miley Cyrus?

Reese: Well, you know, I think it shows that he has really had an impact already in just a
a short amount of time. And frankly, it's not just him, it's the message of Jesus Christ. It's the message of compassion, of love, of concern for the poor that Pope Francis is giving to the world.

Werman: Tom Reese with the National Catholic Reporter, thank you very much for your time.

Reese: You're welcome.