Poverty. Immigration. Human rights violations.
Some popes have tackled such issues head-on, using their special place as the spiritual voice from the high cliff to embrace activism.
Pope John Paul II famously pressed political buttons, even being credited with helping to bring down Communism. John Paul II, whose papacy lasted 26 years, understood well the power of symbolism, linking arms in 1989 with Lech Walesa in an expression of support for his fight against Poland’s repressive Communist regime. His overseas trips drew thousands, at times millions, and the pontiff could make worldwide headlines with a passing remark urging a nation’s political leaders to right a wrong.
Whether Pope Francis, who already is generating widespread interest and anticipation for his preference for living humbly and concern for the downtrodden, will be a John Paul-style activist remains to be seen.
John Paul was courageous. He took the liberty, being the pope, to do that. He was explicitly critical, on TV, in terms of criticizing the Marxist system. Then others [clergy] started doing that in Cuba.
“Which Pope Francis will the world get?” asked a story in the Guardian. “A man strong on progressive ideas and global issues, or a highly conservative one primarily interested in spreading the Catholic message?”
The Vatican and the pope have two chief missions – the Catholic Church and diplomatic relations, said Miguel Diaz, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton (Ohio).
“It’ll be interesting to see over the next months how he goes about the two parts,” Diaz said. “Pope Francis comes from a part of the world [Argentina] dealing with a number of challenges that exist not only there, but in many places all over the world… A pope is not just the head of 1.2 billion Catholics.”
In 1998, John Paul II went to Cuba, and took both the United and Cuba – which the Castro regime had declared atheist decades before – to task as thousands of Cubans cheered in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana and then-leader Fidel Castro stoically sat in the front row.
John Paul II also condemned the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, and called on Cuba to respect human rights.
“John Paul was courageous,” said the Rev. Robert Pelton, director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. “He took the liberty, being the pope, to do that. He was explicitly critical, on TV, in terms of criticizing the Marxist system. Then others [clergy] started doing that in Cuba.”
Cuba loosened its grip on religious observance after John Paul’s visit, allowing, for example, the celebration of Christmas after decades of treating it as another work day.
John Paul’s active support for Walesa’s fight was seen as crucial to the crumbling of Communism in Poland, the pontiff’s homeland, and later the rest of Europe.
Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012, and like John Paul, called for an end to the U.S.-Cuba embargo, and for liberty in Cuba. Benedict, however, did not command the attention of his charismatic predecessor.
Still, it gave Catholic faith leaders on the island a sense of empowerment.
Shortly after, Cuban Cardinal Jamie Ortega played a central role in securing the release of more than 100 political prisoners.
"The church [in Cuba] has now been accepted as a legitimate and important interlocutor of the government on sensitive topics like freeing political prisoners, the conditions of those in prison, the treatment of dissidents," said Jorge Dominguez, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in published reports. "This is a wholly unprecedented role for the Roman Catholic in Cuba for the past half century."
Latino political leaders in the United States expressed hope that Pope Francis, who it is said is not a fan of traveling a lot, can help the plight of the poor.
“It is a source of pride to see the first election of a Pope from Latin America,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y. “Equally important, Pope Francis has a distinguished record of working to comfort and assist the poor, while personally leading a humble life inspired by Christ. Like all Catholics, I am excited by his election and join in praying for him as he assumes his new role.”