Pope Francis reads his homily as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Saturday. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

This Christmas—just over a week after Pope Francis turned 80—is a good opportunity to look at some of the things the world’s most famous living Christian has been up to in 2016. While it has been a politically tumultuous year around the world, the octogenarian has made waves himself with speeches, letters and acts that have generated applause and set tongues a-wagging.

In the past, Truthdig has paid homage to Francis for his progressive outlooks on climate change, as well as the refugee crisis. But since the last time we wrote extensively about him, in 2015, the Catholic Church leader has done several notable and sometimes surprising, forward-looking things. He declared 2016 the Year of Mercy, and, while sticking to the church line about abortion being a “grave sin,” suddenly and permanently opened the door to forgiveness for the procedure. While some may argue that this still frames abortion as a deplorable act, Francis’ focus on trying to understand the circumstances that lead to terminating unwanted pregnancies paves the path toward acceptance. The pontiff has had a similar outlook on LGBT people, as well as those who are divorced and remarried.

During a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan, the 266th pope said that the church should embrace people of all gender identities (at another point, he reportedly literally hugged a transgender man), and said in an interview in June that

“[Gay people] should not be discriminated against. They should be respected, accompanied pastorally.

“I think that the Church not only should apologise … to a gay person whom it offended but it must also apologise to the poor as well, to the women who have been exploited, to children who have been exploited by (being forced to) work. It must apologise for having blessed so many weapons.”

As for divorce, Francis has recently come under fire from within the church for his document “Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love),” in which he implied that Catholics who had been divorced and remarried in civil courts could receive the sacrament. And when the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires took him at his word and began to offer penance to people who fit the bill, Francis stood behind his hometown church, despite four conservative cardinals issuing public dubia, or doubts, demanding clarification of the document’s implications.

In his travels this year, he visited various regions of Mexico, where he “demanded justice for Mexico’s indigenous communities” and condemned those who would build walls between nations (a not-so-indirect swipe at our president-elect). He also visited the Greek island of Lesbos to welcome refugees, and, as is his habit, he put his words into action and took three Muslim refugee families back with him to Rome.

Francis also ordered an investigation into the role of female deacons in the early days of the Catholic Church, a decree that could lead to more leadership roles for women in the religious organization. With regards to corruption and bureaucracy within the Vatican, Francis is also working toward implementing widespread reforms.

Other worthy moments in his three years as pope include an unprecedented speech before Congress, in which he honored Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Doris Day and Thomas Merton; he also condemned the death penalty. In addition, he was involved in negotiations to renew the relationship between the United States and Cuba, and he recently led a formal discussion between Colombia’s president and former president about the implementation of a peace deal with FARC, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia.

Most important, he has widely condemned capitalism as a system that has failed the most vulnerable members of society, causing people to turn their backs on their neighbors in order to focus on endless, meaningless consumerism. He has consistently tried to shine a light on the plight of the poor in every part of the planet, making this the focus of his papacy. This week, in a speech in which he said he could not speak of “Muslim violence” without discussing “Catholic violence,” he added that “terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person … This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.”

And consider how the head of the Vatican spent his birthday on Dec. 17: He had breakfast with eight homeless people and then sent cakes to feed 1,500 at homeless shelters all over Rome, among other activities. In other words, even as some conservatives were probably crossing their fingers that the pope, named Jorge Mario Bergoglio at birth, would retire (80 is the age at which bishops can no longer sit on the electoral college that chooses the pope), the Argentine priest was as spry and generous as ever, reaffirming his commitment to the poor and helpless as he celebrated his eight decades on earth.

There’s no denying that the pope still tends toward conservatism on certain issues, but, as Paul Vallely notes in The Guardian, while his two recent predecessors swung the Vatican’s political pendulum to the right, Francis has done quite a lot to bring the Catholic Church back to the center, as well as place it center stage in the global landscape.

Much like the Christian man whose birthday many will be celebrating Sunday, the pontiff has dedicated his life to caring for those who others, in their greed and ignorance, have neglected or harmed, and has inspired many within and outside the Catholic Church to truly “love thy neighbor.” For this and for the reasons listed above, Pope Francis is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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