With his face splashed across the covers of Time, The New Yorker and even the gay glossy The Advocate, it would be easy to think the election of Pope Francis was the biggest religion story of 2013. And it was.

But even as the election of former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio dominated headlines in 2013, he wasn’t the only big religion story. Shifts in gay marriage, church-state relations and the Boston Marathon bombings all received front-page treatment.

A new pope captures the world’s imagination

Entering the conclave after the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, few Vatican experts had their money on Bergoglio, the longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires who was best known for taking the bus to work and cooking his own meals. Yet when he emerged as the 266th pope after two days and five ballots of voting, the newly minted Pope Francis immediately captured the world’s imagination by taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor.

Francis immediately set about refashioning the papacy — cold-calling the desperate and destitute who wrote him letters, shunning the papal apartments for a small suite in the Vatican guesthouse, even inviting four homeless men to join him for lunch on his 77th birthday (Dec. 17). “We’ll get used to a new way of doing things,” said the Rev. Tom Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, the day Francis was elected. Indeed.

In the months since, Francis has won over crowds by embracing the disabled and disfigured in St. Peter’s Square, redirecting employee bonuses to charity and even asking “who am I to judge?” on the question of homosexuality. While keeping church teaching intact, he has challenged the Catholic Church to reimagine its place in the world, saying he believes “in God, not in a Catholic God” and saying the church is too “obsessed” with hot-button debates over sexual morality. Looking ahead to a special Synod of Bishops in 2014, he’s asked the world’s Catholics to share their opinions on issues affecting the family — a sign of just how revolutionary this most unconventional of popes could be.

An old pope exits stage right

It’s easy to forget, however, that there would be no new pope if the old pope hadn’t resigned. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI became the first man in some 600 years to abandon the pomp and power of the papacy, and his decision freed the church to shake off years of stagnation and scandal. Benedict, now 86, has mostly kept his promise to live “hidden from the world” in a retrofitted Vatican convent and put to rest questions about the challenges of two living popes. Yet his legacy will be felt for years — he appointed a generation of conservative-minded bishops and many of the men who chose his successor — and the traditional pope perhaps single-handedly transformed the papacy from a lifetime appointment to an office that is bigger than any single man.

Gay marriage victories

Even as the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. Windsor paved the way for the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, smaller but equally important changes were afoot that gave the justices the social cover to transform the understanding of marriage. Gallup pollsters found a 19-point swing on the “moral acceptability” of gay and lesbian relations since 2001 — the largest shift on any social issue. As Gallup put it, “U.S. acceptance of gay/lesbian relations is the new normal.” The number of Americans who see homosexuality as a sin fell to record lows (37 percent), and nearly three in four Americans say legal recognition of same-sex marriage is “inevitable.”

Almost as if to prove the point, six new states allowed gay marriage in 2013, bringing the total number to 16, plus the District of Columbia. The Boy Scouts of America dropped its longtime ban on openly gay members (even as the organization retained a prohibition on openly gay adult leaders), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America elected its first openly gay bishop with barely a shrug. The ex-gay ministry Exodus International shuttered its doors, and John Paulk, the former poster boy for the ex-gay movement at Focus on the Family, recanted and apologized.

Church-state fights get heated

Unable to find a middle ground with religious groups and unwilling to offer an exemption to private employers, the White House asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the religious owners of for-profit businesses must abide by a mandate to provide free contraceptive coverage to employees. While a host of lawsuits filed by religious institutions make their way through federal courts, the Supreme Court will decide next year whether companies such as the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain are exempt from the mandate. The high court will also decide in 2014 the limits on prayer at public meetings in Greece v. Galloway, after a Jew and an atheist complained that the prayers in their New York town meetings were almost exclusively Christian.

What makes a Jew Jewish?

In the most comprehensive study of American Jews in 12 years, a strong majority (62 percent) said being Jewish is mostly about ancestry or culture. But 22 percent of self-identified Jews told the Pew Research Center that they had no religion, and when asked what is essential to being Jewish, more respondents (73 percent) named “remembering the Holocaust” than any other answer. Perhaps most interesting, more than three in 10 Jews believe a person can believe that Jesus was the messiah — the belief that’s central to Christianity — and still be Jewish.

Other notables:

  • Pope Francis cleared the way for two of his most charismatic predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, to be canonized as saints in 2014.
  • The Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and wounded dozens served as a wake-up call to American Muslims about the threats of homegrown extremism and lone-wolf militants. Muslims said the absence of much of a backlash showed that most Americans were able to draw a distinction between the suspects and their Muslim neighbors.
  • Doug Phillips, a leading proponent of “biblical patriarchy” in which a man is called to “rule over his household” and “the God-ordained and proper sphere of dominion for a wife is the household,” resigned from his Texas-based Vision Forum Ministries after acknowledging an extramarital affair. The ministry announced days later that it would disband.
  • The United Methodist Church, facing a wave of open revolt from ministers who are barred from officiating at same-sex weddings, moved to defrock a Pennsylvania minister who refused to recant for presiding at the wedding of his gay son.
  • A federal judge struck down key portions of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, ruling that the phrase “or cohabits with another person” is a violation of both the First and 14th Amendments. The ruling does not force the heavily Mormon state to recognize plural marriages — and he said nothing about laws against bigamy. The issue comes down to “religious cohabitation,” which is beyond the scope of state laws.
  • The president of the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was forced to apologize for his role in the “debacle” of censoring a young pastor in Newtown, Conn., who joined an interfaith prayer vigil after last year’s deadly Sandy Hook school shootings. Faced with accusations of being heavy-handed and insensitive, LCMS president Matthew Harrison said he was wrong to force the Newtown pastor, the Rev. Rob Morris, to apologize for violating a ban on joint worship with other faiths.


Harold Camping, the Doomsday prophet whose predictions that the world would end on May 21, 2011, turned out to be false, died at 92; former National Council of Churches leader Bob Edgar died at 69; longtime Billy Graham soloist George Beverly Shea died at 104; Rabbi Philip Berg, who brought Kabbalah to the stars, died at 86; religious broadcaster Paul Crouch died at 79; Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain died at 72; feisty civil rights activist Will Campbell died at 88; Karl A. Quilter, the man who designed all but 10 or so of the Angel Moroni sculptures atop Mormon temples worldwide, died at 84; Nelson Mandela, heralded as a modern-day Moses who peacefully led South Africa out of the horror of apartheid, died at 95; Evelyn Lowery, a civil rights partner with her husband Joseph Lowery, died at 88.

(Editor's note: for another take on 2013's top religious leaders, go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/31/top-religious-leaders-2013_n_4520539.html?ref=topbar -- Jerry L. Van Marter)