Civil society can breathe a sigh of relief: Pope Francis is TIME Magazine’s Person of the year for 2013, beating out the likes of Miley Cyrus to claim the mantle of the world's most influential person.
The award that started in 1927 is one of the biggest headline grabbers in media history, and acts as a cultural barometer that indicates where we're at as a civilization.
Sadly, like our civilization, it has turned into a bit of a joke.
Originally, the award was supposed to be morally neutral - Adolf Hitler won the award in 1938, and Josef Stalin in 1939 and 1942, but after a huge public backlash in 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini took the mantle, the magazine decided to stick to safer figures like Bill Gates, 'You' (to reflect the collaborative nature of the internet), and 'The Protestor' (representing protestors around the world). Edgy stuff!
In the age of the internet where clicks are the name of the game, one can't help but feel that (shock! horror!) the whole process is now designed for maximum attention rather than meaningful social commentary. Miley Cyrus was never going to win the award, but she was going to bring a whole lot of attention to the countdown. And that she did - Cyrus lead the online polls for a while (though Egypt's Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won it in the end), creating huge controversy and no doubt a lot of traffic.
While Cyrus's lack of clothing in public and semi-pornographic dance routines got the internet buzzing, there isn't a serious argument to be made that she had the 'biggest impact' on the world in any conceivable way. Compared to a Pope upending centuries of Catholic homophobia, a Middle Eastern leader killing off thousands of his own people with chemical weapons, and a former government employee leaking state secrets to the public, Cyrus is a minnow competing with sharks.
Here was the shortlist of contenders for 2013:
Barack Obama, President of the United States
Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran
Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services
Edward Snowden, N.S.A. Leaker
Edith Windsor, Gay rights activist
Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria
Jeff Bezos, Amazon Founder
Ted Cruz, Texas Senator
Miley Cyrus, Singer
Pope Francis, Leader of the Catholic Church
Had Cyrus won, that would have been it for TIME Magazine, and probably all pretensions that we're living in a civilized society. So of course, the editors made sure she didn't.
Pope Francis really is deserving of the title - his radical departure from Vatican orthodoxy has created shockwaves throughout the church and the world. Francis, for lack of a better phrase, really is Christ-like in his behavior. He apparently sneaks out of the Vatican at night to feed the poor, refuses to condemn homosexuality, and is attempting to lead by example rather than dictate. This is sort of what we should expect from a religious leader, but given the Church's history of complicity in sex crimes, suppression of women and war on contraception, it's actually pretty revolutionary.
Given TIME Magazine is still an important media institution (just) we should probably be grateful that they rescued the the award from the jaws of death. Or in other words, the winner of the 2006 awards; ourselves.