Ever since becoming maximum leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in 2013, Pope Francis has not minced words to take strong positions on major international issues. But on the eve of a visit to his native South American continental homeland, he was called upon to speak out loudly – and act strongly– against men of his cloth accused of sexual abuse.
All Francis’ predecessors – except Syria-born Pope Gregory III in the 8th century -- have been Europeans. But none has been as outspoken as the first Christian pontiff from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere in all of 13 centuries.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as a young man he worked as a chemical technologist and a nightclub bouncer before becoming a priest in 1963.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio embraced Liberation Theology and the Argentine cleric was admired across South America for his trademark humility.
Rejecting the comforts guaranteed by his top church position, he traveled by bus across his diocese and rejected the luxurious quarters his predecessors resided at, opting instead to live alone in a small rented apartment.
Elevated to his pontifical throne at the palatial Vatican, Pope Francis did likewise, choosing to stay in a guesthouse and rejecting the papal limousine in favor of an ordinary car.
Less than one square mile in area, located within Italy’s vast capital (Rome) and with a resident population of only a few hundred citizens within its walls, The Vatican is officially the smallest country –and with the smallest population -- in the entire world.
Officially called "The Holy See," it also has non-voting rights at the United Nations (UN) and The Pope is its Head of State.
But Francis quickly earned the eternal wrath of die-hard conservatives within his religious empire for breaking with traditional church dogma on several issues.
In 2014, he told the members of the top-ranking Pontifical Academy of Sciences that he supported the "Big Bang" theory and Evolution – positions he said were “not inconsistent with the theory of Creation.” He also supports actions to protect the earth against Climate Change.
Between 2014 and 2015, Pope Francis spoke out against the misuse of political and economic power internationally, lamented the disappearance and suspected murder of 43 students in Mexico and condemned the dangers and loss of life caused by immigration.
He condemned financial mismanagement at The Vatican; and his decision to excommunicate members of the Mafia, though hailed worldwide, earned him several death threats.
Francis opposes "unbridled capitalism" and sees consumerism as "irresponsible development."
He played a leading role in facilitating the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba in 2015.
Then, in December 2017, he called for “serene dialogue” between the government and opposition in Venezuela, as they prepared for crucial talks in the Dominican Republic on January 11 and 12, 2018.
In his fifth annual Christmas Message, delivered on December 25, 2017, Francis did not break with his tradition of speaking out against the ills affecting the world.
On Palestine, he urged “a resumption of dialogue” towards “a negotiated solution” that would allow for “the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders.”
Opposing Militarism and Capitalism, he said “The winds of war are blowing in our world and an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline.
On tensions on the Korean peninsula, he hoped that “mutual trust may increase, in the interest of the world as a whole”.
On Refugees and Economic Migrants everywhere, he said the millions involved “do not choose to go away” but are “driven from their lands” and “forced to travel alone in inhuman conditions, becoming easy targets for human traffickers” while “risking their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy”.
Francis’ 2017 end-of-year message also urged de-escalation of conflicts in Iraq and Syria and he called for peace in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria.
His 2018 New Year message, delivered to coincide with the church’s observation of World Peace Day, was also dedicated to the cause of refugees, calling on the world to show solidarity with those forced by dreadful conditions to leave their homes in search of better elsewhere.
But all this didn’t just fall out of the sky.
In early December 2013, soon after taking his high office, the still new pope gave an "apostolic exhortation" -- an address calling for big changes in the church, including rethinking long-held but outdated customs.
He said: "I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” rather than one “which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
"I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends being caught-up in a web of obsessions and procedures," he added.
Not Above Criticism…
However, Francis has not been without or above criticism.
As soon as he was elected to pontifical high office in 2013, the Western press unearthed earlier criticism that as head of the Argentine Catholic Church, he failed to openly criticize successive dictatorships.
He was even accused of failing to defend and protect priests hounded by dictators – to which he responded by pointing out that he had in fact once given his official ID card to one who resembled him so that he could escape the country.
Francis was also accused of not taking swift and strong enough action against a former Vatican Ambassador to the Dominican Republic who was found to have been a serial sexual molester of little boys. The guilty senior cleric was recalled to the Vatican where internal investigations began, but he died before the proceedings ended.
In more recent cases, Francis came under pressure from critics in Australia and the USA regarding senior clerics also accused of child molestation, both of whom were recalled to the Vatican and one of who died and was buried without paying for his sins of commission.
Now, ahead of his upcoming visit to Chile and Peru, protesters defending the cases of victims of abuse have been threatening to protest during his Chile visit over claims that the Vatican is too slow and ineffective in taking action against senior clerics accused of abuse and of inaction against the alleged perpetrators.
In the Chile case, extremists have attacked churches with explosive devices, even threatening Francis that unless he acts according to their demands, “the next one will be in your Cossack.”
The pope faced similar criticism and pressure last year before and during his visit to Myanmar, where he was being canvassed to denounce the treatment of Rohingya victims of abuse and "ethnic cleansing."
But this ex-bouncer has always found ways and means to not only accept criticisms, but also to act in ways that, in the end, give time to address the issues in manners that do not reflect genuflection to those holding proverbial guns to his head.
Ahead of the Chile visit, for example, while there were no plans to meet the victims of priestly abuse, his spokesman in Rome made it clear that such a meeting was “not impossible”.
Without saying so, Francis seems to be signaling to his loud critics that he is not deaf, but their causes are not the only ones on his large plate in a world that is more quickly turning away from religion than ever before.
Today, 21st Century automation and innovation, along with other advances in modern science and technology, are increasingly attracting youth away from religion worldwide, leaving most church leaders fearing a growing apparent eclipse of traditional spiritual dominance.
Yet, in the midst of it all, the criticisms notwithstanding, Francis keeps bucking the traditional trend by remaining the loudest mouth of and for the south, in a world still so unfairly dominated by the north.
With popes appointed for life, the words of the first spiritual leader of a major Western faith to emerge from the Southern Hemisphere in 13 decades not only still sound good to his global flock, but also feel like a lasting breath of fresh air they pray will last in 2018 and beyond.