What a year for Pope Francis: From unknown to Time’s Person of the Year

Pope Francis has been named the 2013 Time Magazine Person of the Year by its editors voting him the most influential global newsmaker. Franco Origlia / Getty Images/ File

It's been a whirlwind year for Pope Francis.

He started 2013 as a relatively unknown Argentinian archbishop but ended it as the beloved leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and Time's Person of the Year.

As Time magazine puts it, "the septuagenarian superstar is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century."

And change, with Pope Francis, came overnight.

He took over a church rocked by atrocious infighting, marred by child-abuse scandals, embarrassed by private memos leaked by the previous pope's own butler, and shocked by the first abdication of a pontiff in almost 600 years.

The new pope had almost an impossible task ahead of him: Resurrect confidence in the Roman Catholic Church that looked lost and arcane.

Against the odds, Pope Francis seems to have worked a miracle so far.

Pope Francis in a matter of months has reformed the image of the Catholic Church from an unapproachable, extravagant, institution into a humble champion of the poor.

He's done this by renouncing clerical privilege, washing the feet of female convicts, jumping off the once bullet-proof "pope mobile" to kiss the disabled, relaxing the conservative rhetoric on homosexuals and divorcees, and promoting a more prominent role for women in the church.

"What makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all," Time magazine wrote.

George Weigel, NBC’s Vatican analyst, said he is surprised by Time's choice, but not by the reasons behind it.

Pope Francis named Time's Person of the Year 4:15

“This always tends to go to a political figure, statesman, someone who is in the headlines as a person of power…and Pope Francis is none of those,” said Weigel. “I am not surprised that the pope has captured the world’s imagination in a singular way, and I think it has reminded the world it needs a pastor, whether the world wants it or not.”

Weigel added, “I think he has lifted the spirits of human beings around the world as no one else has in the year 2013. No one else brought three million people to a beach in Brazil to celebrate what is noblest in the human spirit.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, also released a statement on the honor. 

“Just like Blessed Pope John Paul II was in 1995, Pope Francis has been named Time's "Person of the Year" for presenting the Church's ‘timeless truths’ to today's world. In all that he does, through his humble ways and simple lifestyle, Pope Francis clearly radiates the joy that comes from loving God and caring for his people. There could be no finer choice for "Person of the Year."

While earning the cover of Time as Person of the Year is considered a prestigious tribute, the Vatican seemed to have come to expect this sort of lavish treatment.

"This fact is unsurprising, considering the resonance and very widespread attention given to the election of Pope Francis and the beginning of his pontificate," Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, said in a statement.

“It is a positive sign that one of the most prestigious acknowledgements in the field of the international press has been attributed to one who proclaims spiritual, religious and moral values in the world, and who speaks effectively in favor of peace and greater justice.”

Lombardi added that while the pope does not seek fame and international validation, he would likely be pleased by the honor.

“If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the pope is content. If this nomination as ‘Person of the Year’ means that many have understood this message, at least implicitly, he will certainly be glad.”