The 76-year-old, who rose from modest beginnings and has been praised for his down-to-earth approach, is the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, the first Latin American head of the Church and a leading voice for the dispossessed.
He has taken on leadership of a 1.2-billion-strong Church beset by scandal and signs of deep internal dysfunction, but there are signs his popularity is revitalising it.
Time’s runner-up was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia and with whom Time published an exclusive interview.
“For pulling the Papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest Church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy, Pope Francis is TIME’s 2013 Person of the Year,” said managing editor Nancy Gibbs.
She said it was rare for a new figure on the world stage to capture so much attention so quickly — from the “young and old, faithful and cynical”.
“He has placed himself at the very centre of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalisation, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power,” said Gibbs.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi welcomed the accolade, not because the Pope sought fame but because it would give people hope.
In third place was US gay rights activist Edith Windsor in honour of her win in June when the US Supreme Court granted same-sex married couples the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples.
In fourth place was Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for managing not only to survive but turn the tide of the civil war his way.
“The mild-mannered ophthalmologist-turned-Old-Testament-tyrant has taught his neighbours an ancient lesson: that absolute, unrelenting brutality combined with geostrategic cleverness is the most likely way to retain power in the Middle East.”
In fifth place was Republican Tea Party US Senator Ted Cruz.