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Pope Francis’ election tops 2013 religion stories

The votes are in — and the pope wins again.

The top religion story of 2013, according to the nation’s religion journalists, is Pope Francis’ election as head of the billion-member Catholic church shortly after being named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

Also, Francis was voted the Religion Newsmaker of the Year, beating out his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who unexpectedly resigned in February, and the Rev. Billy Graham, who turned 95 in November.

“He’s bringing a freshness, an openness, to the church like we haven’t seen in a long time,” said the Rev. Matthew Gamber, a theology teacher at Jesuit High School in Tampa. “We are turning a page when people thought that wouldn’t be possible, given all that has happened with the church in recent years.”

Since the white smoke appeared March 13, rising in puffs over the Vatican and signaling to the world that the Catholic Church had a new leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has consistently broken new ground in his mission to repair the image of the 2,000-year-old religious institution.

From the beginning, the former cardinal and archbishop of Buenos Aires has made it clear that talk is not enough and transformation is necessary.

The pope — the first Jesuit to lead the church — began with choosing as his namesake Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint of the poor. Sister Anne Dougherty of The Franciscan Center in Tampa says he’s already living up to the saint’s example.

“For the last 800 years, St. Francis has influenced the church as being a church for the poor, and demanded that his followers live in humility and live in peace with our brothers and sisters and all of creation,” she said.

Though he lived in a time when popes commanded armies and church leaders lived like kings, Dougherty said, Francis of Assisi challenged the hierarchy to follow Jesus.

Pope Francis so far appears to have that same mission, she said.

He chose not to live in the opulent apartment in the Apostolic Palace and instead moved into more modest living quarters in the Vatican guest house. He’s donned a firefighter’s helmet at a public gathering and posed for selfies with teens. As for the popemobile that kept his predecessors behind a bulletproof glass enclosure, it’s been replaced by an open white convertible.

On Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet of female prisoners; at his 77th birthday breakfast last week, he invited four homeless men to break bread with him.

Perhaps one of the most riveting images to come out of his papacy so far was the public embrace he gave a severely disfigured man. The 53-year-old Italian man suffers from neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that leaves his body covered in growths from head to toe.

Last month, when the pope spotted the man in a wheelchair at his morning public audience in Vatican City, he immediately went to him and embraced him tightly.

Vinicio Riva told reporters afterward he is more accustomed to shock and fear and was initially confused by the pope’s lack of hesitation.

“He didn’t have any fear of my illness,” Riva said. “He embraced me without speaking. … I quivered. I felt a great warmth.”

That incident so moved Jesuit High’s Gamber that he posted photos of it in his classroom to inspire conversation among the students. It worked.

“This is a pope that does the unexpected,” Gamber said. “Like Jesus touching the lepers, Francis embraced this man. Every day, he’s an example of how we should be living out the Gospel.”

One of Gamber’s most memorable moments in 2013 was leading a group of 47 Jesuit students and young alumni to Rio de Janeiro in July as about 3 million Catholics gathered for World Youth Day. It was the new pope’s first major public gathering.

“The excitement that I saw in the younger generation was something that is so needed at this time in the church,” Gamber said.

“I have nothing but respect for Benedict, but he knew he wasn’t the one to bring transformation to the church. This pope, who has no agenda and is unencumbered, is the man to bring the good news. He is beholden to no one. He is showing us that God has a plan and we can be a part of it.”

Here’s the complete list of the top 10 stories selected by members of the Religion Newswriters Association, compiled in an online survey earlier this month:

1. Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina is a surprise choice to succeed Benedict, becoming the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope, and the first to take the name of Francis. He immediately launches a series of stunning and generally popular forays — meeting with the poor in Brazil, embracing the ill, issuing conciliatory words toward gays and calling for a poorer and more pastoral church.

2. Pope Benedict XVI, citing age and strength issues, becomes the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.

3. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, clears the way for gay marriage in California and voids the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples. Gay marriage continues to make inroads within the states, with Illinois and Hawaii becoming the 15th and 16th states to approve same-sex marriage.

4. The Obama administration makes concessions to faith-based groups and businesses opposed to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, but not enough to satisfy many of them. The disagreement continues as the U.S. Supreme Court accepts a case brought by Hobby Lobby challenging the mandate, although faith-based and private employers had mixed results in the lower-courts.

5. Islam plays a central role in the post-Arab Spring Middle East as the Egyptian military ousts the elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government and violently cracks down on its supporters; meanwhile, Sunni Islamist fighters increase their role in Syria’s opposition.

6. Icon of reconciliation and nonviolence Nelson Mandela dies at age 95 and is remembered as a modern-day Moses who led his people out of racial captivity.

7. Religious-inspired attacks claim scores of lives, with extremist Buddhist monks fomenting attacks on Muslims in Myanmar and Muslim extremists targeting Christians at churches in Egypt, an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and a church in Peshawar, Pakistan. Moderate religious leaders condemn the attacks, and a Somali Muslim emerges as a hero for rescuing a young American girl in the Nairobi mall.

8. More than 1 in 5 Jews in America now report having no religion, according to a landmark survey from the Pew Research Center. The number of professing Jewish adults is now less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, although Jewish identity remains strong.

9. The Boy Scouts of America, after much debate, votes to accept openly gay Scouts but not Scoutmasters. Several Catholic leaders endorse the move; some evangelical leaders oppose it.

10. Muslims join those across the country who condemn a devastating bombing at the Boston Marathon by two young Muslim men who attended college in the area. People of many faiths were among the many who showed an outpouring of support for the bombing victims.

With information from the Religion Newswriters Association

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