Like the two-faced Roman god, for whom the first month of the year is named, New Year's inevitably invites us to look both ways - to look back at what has transpired and to look forward to what lies ahead. A standard fare of news programs and publications, the year-end retrospective has survived into the changed media environment of the new century because it responds so precisely to the complex of emotions the turn of the year unavoidably unleashes.
The year that began in the afterglow of the 2012 election held out the hope that Washington's political fever would break, that the minority party would accept the popular will and work with the majority to govern. Once again, however, dysfunction would reign supreme in Washington, as society remained hopelessly polarized by ideological divisions. Even immigration, the issue progress on which seemed so promising and on which the Senate actually did produce bi-partisan progress, still languished unresolved at year's end. At home, another government shutdown seemed to confirm the country's steady decline into "banana republic" status, a status reflected also in the increasing crisis of inequality as the once widely shared promise of the American Dream became increasingly elusive. Abroad, America's status and role as the world's superpower seemed further compromised by the sorry spectacle in Washington and by a war-weary, increasingly inward-looking society's inability to provide effective international leadership, most obviously in the case of Syria.
But the biggest news story of 2013 left secular politics behind. The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI broke new historical ground and upended established expectations. Seen in secular, political terms, it was a story that could easily have reinforced a growing popular impression of the Church's weakness. Yet, the world was about to see the ultimate inadequacy of such secular, political analyses about the Church. The election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope (and the first in centuries from any religious order) might have seemed news enough. But even all of that has seemed secondary to the positive impact Pope Francis has had personally on the world. Celebrity, of course, is a two-edged sword and can cut both ways. Some of his secular admirers will likely be disappointed by the deep substantive continuity that is at the heart of the Church's life. But the Pope has captured the world's attention in no small part simply by being disarmingly genuine - not unlike his famous namesake. And both in his actions and in his words (especially his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium) he is very pointedly challenging the entire Church to break out of caricature, to free ourselves from the ever-growing influences of individualism, consumerism, and libertarianism, and to embrace again the perennial challenge to exemplify what we profess and so be able to bring good news to our hurting world.
To the extent that the Church's energies are effectively mustered at all levels in support of this effort - in individual lives, in parishes, in religious communities, among Bishops, and in the Synod of Bishops - that will be the truly important story of 2014.