WASHINGTON -- Pope Francis' fifth trip to Latin America in just five years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church demonstrates his careful attempt to recapture the soul of the church in the region.
During his weeklong travel through Chile and Peru, the Argentine-born pope's message often has stood in marked contrast to those delivered by two predecessors, Benedict XVI and the John Paul II, who also made several trips to the continent once known for and often defined by its fervent Catholicism.
For decades, the church has steadily lost ground -- in membership and prestige -- in Latin America, especially in staunchly Catholic Chile and Peru. The sexual abuse scandal, in which priests raped or otherwise molested minors and were often protected by their bishops, and the failure of John Paul, and to a lesser extent Benedict, to forcefully confront the problem eroded the credibility of institutionalized religion in Latin America especially.
In addition, the growth of secularism and, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, of evangelical Protestantism, reflected disaffection with Catholicism and further eroded the church's stature. In the 1970s, when military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, the church often catered to the wealthy and privileged, which also drove away worshippers, especially the poor.
Francis has emphasized his commitment for the poor and for the disadvantaged, such as the region's large and neglected indigenous communities, those who wage the uphill fight to protect the environment and migrants.
"There is no Christian joy when doors are closed," he said Thursday in the Chilean town of Iquique. "There is no Christian joy when others are made to feel unwanted, when there is no room for them in our midst."
Two days earlier, he traveled to southern Chile to meet with the long-repressed indigenous Mapuche people, condemning "centuries of injustice" and egregious abuse of human rights, and adding that "the richness of every pueblo" must be welcomed. He pointedly made an environmental-destruction allusion, decrying the "deforestation of hope."
Benedict, on the other hand, will long be remembered for controversial comments made during a visit to Brazil in May 2007, in which he said he believed native Latin Americans essentially welcomed their colonizers, the often-brutal, mostly Spanish conquistadores who brought religion but also disease, slaughter and slavery to the land.
And for John Paul, whose first overseas trip was to Mexico in 1979, Latin America was a dangerous laboratory for Marxist-tinged practices that he was determined to root out. He heeded the counsel of a conservative clergy that warned him against liberation theology, a sometimes left-leaning social activism in the church that advocates for the poor but was also used by a handful of priests to justify armed revolution.
John Paul eventually removed or punished priests who preached liberation theology.