CNN  — 

It looks like a plan concocted by the braintrust of a political campaign.

First, the mission statement: a sweeping critique of economic injustice and environmental exploitation, published in the form of a papal encyclical, one of the Catholic Church’s most important teaching documents.

Then the missionary, one of the most popular people on the planet, takes the message to the masses in places burdened by the very plights he has condemned, where he’ll be cheered by millions as a hometown hero.

Who’s behind this Spiritual Strategery? A Catholic Karl Rove?

Nope. It’s the Pope.

Vatican officials dismiss suggestions that Pope Francis has politics on the brain, or that his encyclical and upcoming trip to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay form part of any master plan.

But as spin doctors might say, the “optics” of the Pope’s eight-day visit to South America – the continent of his homeland, Argentina – couldn’t be better.

Francis lands on Sunday in Ecuador, home to the Galapagos Islands and a stunning array of biodiversity but also widespread income inequality.

The Pope’s next two stops, Bolivia and Paraguay, boast vast natural resources but suffer from deep problems like deforestation and water pollution.

All three countries, which the Pope will visit from July 5-13, are among the poorest in South America.

“They are the forgotten countries,” said the Rev. Gustavo Morello, a Jesuit from Argentina and professor of sociology at Boston College. “No one knows what is going on there.”

The Pope wants to change that, Vatican officials say, as part of his concern for people on the periphery of modern life: the indigenous poor, the land-cramped farmers, and the jobless young people vulnerable to crimes like sexual trafficking.

Francis also likely wants to breathe new life into a Catholic Church suffering through a continent-wide decline, religious experts say.

More than 425 million Catholics live in Latin America, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. That’s nearly 40% of the world’s total Catholic population.

But Catholics in nearly every country, including Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, have fled the church in recent decades for other faiths, or no faith at all.

“Soon we will find out if there is a ‘Francis effect’ in his native region in terms of Mass attendance and participation in church life,” said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Catholicism and author of several books on spirituality in Latin America.

Politically, spiritually and perhaps even personally, the trip to Latin America comes at a crucial time for the Pope. His 22 planned speeches and million-strong Masses will demonstrate where he has taken the church thus far, and where he wants it to go.

Here are three key areas to watch as Francis cruises through South America:


When popes travel to foreign countries, the itinerary usually looks something like this:

Meet heads of state, advise local bishops, pep up the priests, nod at the nuns and say Mass before a large crowd. Side trips to Catholic charities and hospitals are often included as well.

But this Pope’s plans in Bolivia bear a Franciscan twist: He’ll be addressing, along with Bolivian President Evo Morales, the World Meeting of Popular Movements.

Juan Grabois, an Argentine human rights activist and organizer of the meeting, said it’s a summit of grassroots groups from around the world: ragpickers from the slums of India, workers from South American cooperatives, even indigent can-and-bottle collectors from New York.

In other words, it’s the anti-Davos.

It’s the poor and the powerless solving their own problems, working to secure what Pope Francis has called the “sacred rights” of land, housing and work.

Previous popes may have stopped by similar political gatherings, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a correspondent for National Catholic Reporter. Saint John Paul II, for instance, was a big backer of unions. Pope Benedict XVI, a strong anti-poverty advocate, might have said a Mass for the movement.

“But would they actually address a group like this at their own meeting?” Reese said. “I don’t know if they could.”

Unlike previous popes, Francis is from the developing world, and Grabois said he has supported the “Movimentos Populares,” as it’s called in Spanish, since 2001.

At the time, Francis was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, and Argentina was suffering through one of the worst financial crises of the modern era, with millions of formerly middle-class people reduced to picking through trash.

“He believes in the organization of the poor by their own kind and struggling for social justice,” Grabois said. “He wants to hear what they want to say, instead of listening only to political leaders.”

It won’t be the first time Francis has spoken to the movement. When it gathered in Rome last year, he addressed participants in glowing terms, calling them a “great sign” of a truth “often silenced” even by Christians and churches.

“The poor not only suffer injustice,” he said, “they also struggle against it!”

Grabois said he has asked Francis to focus his talk in Bolivia next week on the eco-encyclical, “Laudato Si,” which argues that our care of the earth and concern for the poor are inextricably connected.


In his seven years as Pope, Benedict made 25 foreign trips. The vast majority were to major Western powers like Spain (three times) and his German homeland (three times).

The jet-setting John Paul, who was pope from 1978-2005, visited far more countries, but again, traveled mainly to countries like France (eight visits), the United States (seven trips, including two quick stopovers) and Spain (five trips).

For both popes, Europe was clearly a top priority, said Reese, and for good reason.

“If we can’t figure out how to save the church in Europe and North America,” Reese said, “I don’t know what the future holds.”

John Paul focused on fighting communism, especially in his native Poland. Benedict, a theologian, wanted to defend the faith from secularists bent on chasing the church from public debates.

But when Francis was elected in 2013, it signaled a shift in the church’s Eurocentric thinking.

The College of Cardinals that chose Francis had stretched “almost to the ends of the earth” to find him, he joked. Vatican officials say he’s determined to remain a “Pope of the peripheries.”

Francis has visited Asia twice, and his pastoral trips within Europe have been to Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Likewise, his upcoming trip to South America spotlights countries not often on the international agenda. Only once has a pope (John Paul II) visited Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, and it was nearly 30 years ago.

Yes, Pope Francis visited Brazil in 2013 and is coming to the United States this September. But in both cases, the primary reason for the trips – World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia – were planned by his predecessors. In essence, Francis had no choice but to come.

Even when he visits the United States, Francis is stopping in Cuba first. When it comes to papal trips, the message seems straight from the Gospel of Matthew: “The last shall be first.”


During the first years of his papacy, we’ve seen the kinds of people this Pope embraces: the elderly, the young, the criminals, the sick, the poor.

We can expect to see a lot more of that during his trip to Latin America, where he’ll visit several slums, an old-age home and one of the continent’s largest prisons. The Pope also plans to spotlight Native American cultures, the Vatican says, with Masses including chants in local languages like Guarani.

Less noticeable, perhaps, are the personnel changes the Pope has made back home at the Vatican. He has removed several Americans and Europeans from high posts while surrounding himself with men who have served the church in Latin America.

His secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, was the Vatican’s ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela. Five of other eight members on the Pope’s powerful Council of Cardinals – his Cabinet, essentially – have worked extensively with Latinos or held postings in Latin America.

The Pope also has stacked the College of Cardinals, the men who will choose his successor, with bishops from outside the traditional Catholic seats of power.

Men from Asia, Latin America and Africa now comprise nearly 40% of the college – the highest percentage in modern history, according to Reese. Some countries, such as Haiti and Tonga, had never had a cardinal.

In that way, Francis seems to be saying, the church’s future should be shaped by people and places that the world – and even some Catholics – have long ignored.