First things first: He is the first pope from the New World, the first from the Jesuit order and the first to pick the beloved St. Francis of Assisi as his papal namesake. And when it comes to dominating religious headlines, this "Pope of Firsts" is second to none.
After replacing Pope Benedict XVI, who became the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to resign, Pope Francis sent clear signals to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics (300,000 in Utah) that the largest Christian faith was entering a bolder era.
Some of the newness centered on style: Francis dons simple white cassocks and shuns showy velvet capes. He bunks in a two-room apartment instead of the plush Apostolic Palace. He totes his own bag and tools around the Vatican in a vintage Renault.
But Francis, Time magazine's Person of the Year, revealed plenty of substance, too, especially when he issued his "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel"). He denounced what he called the "economy of exclusion" and blamed consumer capitalism for the gap between the haves and have-nots.
"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality," he wrote. "… Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape."
The new Argentine pope formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires also urged his clergy to focus less on speaking out against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception and more on reaching out to the poor, the weary and the wayward.
True, Francis has changed no fundamental church tenets (he trumpets Christian values and warns of the "cultural crisis" threatening families and "traditional" marriage), but he has fundamentally softened the tenor and is winning over a world of eager watchers.
This Francis frenzy may not be putting more followers in America's pews, but it certainly is putting more religion in global news.
The marrying kind
Call it a wintertime June swoon as marriage mania broke out across Utah just before Christmas.
Within minutes of U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's Dec. 20 landmark ruling against Utah's ban on gay marriage, same-sex couples raced to county clerks' offices to secure long-awaited licenses. Hugs, kisses and wedding vows filled foyers as Utah became the 18th state to legalize gay marriages nearly 1,000 of them in a matter of days.
Many religious leaders lamented the decision and held out hope that a higher court would overturn it.
"The church has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with respect," the state's predominant religion, the LDS Church, said in a statement. "We continue to believe that … marriage should be between a man and a woman."
Utah's second-largest faith also chimed in against the ruling.
"As Catholics, we seek to defend the traditional, well established and divinely revealed reality of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman, a permanent and exclusive bond meant to provide a nurturing environment for children and the fundamental building block to a just society," said the Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Salt Lake City Diocese. "… At the same time, we respect the dignity of all persons, not wishing to undermine their pursuit of happiness but only to preserve and defend the gift of marriage as divinely revealed in scripture and in natural law."
Other Utah faith leaders celebrated the ruling and happily helped same-sex couples exchange "I do's."
The Rev. Curtis L. Price, for instance, raced over from Salt Lake City's First Baptist Church to the Salt Lake County clerk's office and performed the marriage ceremony for two of the plaintiffs in the Utah case, proclaiming Laurie Wood and Kody Partridge as wife and wife.
Shelby even noted the religious divide in his ruling, arguing that the recognition of same-sex marriage "expands religious freedom" because some Utah churches desire to perform such weddings.
Earlier in the month, another federal judge gutted key parts of the state's anti-polygamy laws, essentially decriminalizing plural marriage.
Clark Waddoups rejected Utah's unlawful-cohabitation laws, depriving state authorities of a vital weapon in their fight against polygamy. Federal officers used similar statutes to round up early Mormon polygamists in the Utah Territory, though LDS leaders quickly noted that modern Mormons "do not practice polygamy, regardless of its legal or cultural acceptance."
As with the same-sex marriage ruling, higher courts are expected to have the final say on plural marriage.
A Scout is …
The Scout Law says a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. And now a Scout can be openly gay, too.
In May, the Boy Scouts of America with the blessing of its largest sponsor, the Utah-based LDS Church voted to change its policy and allow gay youths to join local troops. As part of a compromise, the organization will continue to bar openly gay leaders from its ranks.
The move won praise from some rights activists, seeing the inclusion of openly gay youths as an important step. Others lamented the continued exclusion of gay Scout leaders as another stumble, this one based on false stereotypes painting gay men as sexual predators.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lauded the split decision as a "thoughtful, good-faith effort" to address the volatile issue.
Mormon backing was seen as vital. The 15 million-member global faith boasts more than 420,000 youths in nearly 40,000 Scouting units across the nation surpassing the tens of thousands of teens and troops sponsored by Methodists, Catholics and Presbyterians.
Even so, the new Scout policy still falls short of LDS practices. Mormonism does not consider homosexuality a "sin" and allows chaste gays young and old to hold "callings," or positions, in its organizations; its written guidelines do not exclude Scouting.
In Utah, more than 90 percent of the 182,000-plus Boys Scouts are Mormon. The state has three Scout councils Great Salt Lake, Trapper Trails and Utah National Parks with 15,400 units.
The year 2012 may have been the "Mormon moment," but 2013 had more than its share of singular Mormon moments.
LDS women led the way. In April, Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the faith's Primary general presidency, which oversees instruction of Mormon children, became the first female to offer a public prayer at the worldwide General Conference a symbolic step that earned an emphatic "amen" from feminists and others.
Ordain Women launched a push to, as the group's name states, ordain women. Members staged a second Wear Pants to Church Day. And the faith's twice yearly all-male general priesthood meeting was broadcast live for the first time to women and men. (Women tried to attend the Conference Center session in person but were turned away.)
Mormon women scored, perhaps, their biggest gains among missionaries. "Sister" missionaries used to make up less than 20 percent of the faith's full-time proselytizers. Now, thanks to the lower age limits (19 for women, 18 for men) announced in October 2012, women account for nearly half the missionaries at the flagship Missionary Training Center, which unveiled expansion plans to accommodate the 40 percent jump in the number of missionaries since the age shift.
On a sad note, the 15 million-member faith lost the first lady of Mormonism. Frances Monson, wife of LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, died in May at age 85. The couple had been married for nearly 65 years.
The Utah-based faith also made history by prominently revealing some of its own history.
In a posting on its website, the LDS Church repudiated theological theories about its past ban on blacks entering the all-male priesthood, depicting the policy (started in 1852 by second Mormon prophet Brigham Young) as a product of 19th-century racism, not divine revelation. The church also posted an essay acknowledging that early Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage into the early 20th century after the 1890 "Manifesto" that ushered in the end of the LDS practice of polygamy. In wasn't until after 1904 that "the church strictly prohibited new plural marriages" a hard-and-fast ban that remains in place today.
An unorthodox squabble
Infighting rocked the Salt Lake Valley's Greek Orthodox community for much of the year as financial strains threatened the parish's budget and its priests.
At one point, the parish council planned to cut priestly pay by 40 percent. The Metropolitan Isaiah, the Greek Orthodox regional authority in Denver, fired back, ordering the clergy to discontinue Sunday services, baptisms and weddings until the parish restored the wages.
The priests got back their pay, but it was a close shave. A "special parish assembly" voted by a razor-thin 220-215 margin to restore their full salaries but asked Isaiah to reduce the number of priests in Utah from three to two.
At December's end, the parish council followed up on that request, informing the Rev. Michael Kouremetis, of Holladay's Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, that his compensation is not part of the 2014 budget. But efforts still are in the works to keep Kouremetis on the payroll, along with the Rev. Matthew Gilbert at Salt Lake City's Holy Trinity and the roving Rev. Elias Koucos.
Nation's top religion stories for 2013
1 • Pope Francis' election.
2 • Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.
3 • Supreme Court's decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
4 • Obama's concessions on the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
5 • Islam's role in the Middle East after the Arab Spring.
6 • Nelson Mandela's death.
7 • Religious-inspired attacks in Myanmar, Egypt, Kenya and Pakistan.
8 • Study showing more than one in five U.S. Jews report having no religion.
9 • Boy Scouts of America opens door to openly gay Scouts, but not gay Scoutmasters.
10 • Muslims, others condemn the Boston Marathon bombing.
Source: Vote by journalists for the Religion Newswriters Association