Time magazine named Pope Francis its Person of the Year on Wednesday, crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church while capturing the imagination of millions of people who had become disillusioned with the Vatican.
This is the third time the magazine has chosen a pope as its Person of the Year. Time gave that honour to Pope John Paul II in 1994 and to Pope John XXIII in 1963.
Pope Francis beat former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and gay rights activist Edith Windsor for the award. Other finalists included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US Senator Ted Cruz from Texas.
"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 said in its cover story.
"In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church – the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world – above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors."
Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said Pope Francis was not seeking fame.
"It is a positive sign that one of the most prestigious recognitions by the international media has been given to a person who proclaims to the world spiritual, religious and moral values and speaks out forcefully in favour of peace and greater justice," Lombardi said in a statement.
"If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the Pope is happy. If this choice of 'Person of the Year' means that many have understood this message, even implicitly, he is certainly glad."
In September, the Argentine pontiff gave a groundbreaking and frank interview in which he said the Vatican must shake off an obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful.
And on a plane ride from Brazil, Pope Francis said he was not in a position to judge homosexuals who are of good will and in search of God, marking a break from his predecessor, Benedict, who said homosexuality was an intrinsic disorder.
His style is also characterised by a public move to frugality. Pope Francis has shunned the traditional Mercedes previous popes drove for a 1984 Renault 4 economy car with 300 000km on the clock.
As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he travelled by subway. – Reuters