Pope Francis leaves next Saturday for a brief but intense three-day outing to Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel, a region Christians traditionally call the “Holy Land.” He’ll become the fourth pope to make the trip, which is always a religious and political high-wire act.

Four challenges await him, beginning with the situation facing the region’s small Christian minority.

Across the Middle East, Christians have declined from 20 percent of the population in the early 20th century to roughly 4 percent, and that decline is palpable in the Holy Land. The city of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories, where Francis will say an open-air Mass on Sunday, was almost entirely Christian a century ago, but today it’s more than two-thirds Muslim.

The Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, warns that the Holy Land, if the trend continues, could become a “spiritual Disneyland” — full of glittering attractions, but empty of flesh-and-blood believers.

Though Israel’s Christian population is actually inching up, things are hardly rosy. They’re reeling from a series of attacks by Jewish extremists, including graffiti left on Christian sites reading “Death to Arabs and Christians” and “Jesus is Garbage.”

Life is hardly a picnic on the Palestinian side either. In 2007, the only Christian bookstore in the Gaza Strip was firebombed and its owner murdered by Islamic radicals. In 2010, the lone Christian orphanage on the West Bank was closed under pressure from the Palestinian Authority.

In that context, Francis’ trip represents a chance to urge believers to hold on, and to persuade them that the world’s most important Christian leader has their back.

The second challenge of the visit is its ecumenical dimension, meaning the church’s ongoing effort to foster unity within the divided Christian family. Nowhere are those divisions more apparent than the Holy Land, where virtually every form of Christianity has a toehold which it defends tenaciously.

For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Francis will visit, is traditionally regarded as the burial site of Christ and one of the holiest spots on the Christian map. It’s under the joint jurisdiction of Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Catholics, and their relations are notoriously fractious. A brawl broke out among Greek and Armenian monks in 2008, with police having to pull the combatants apart as they traded kicks and punches.

Francis will meet the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, regarded as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, and for the first time in the Holy Land the two leaders will preside together over a public prayer. The encounter recalls a famous 1964 meeting between Paul Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, which led to lifting excommunications born of the feud between Eastern and Western Christianity and that date to 1054.

It remains to be seen whether the tête-à-tête between Francis and Bartholomew can overcome mutual suspicions centuries in the making.

Third is the inter-faith level of the journey, meaning relations between Christianity and the other two great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam.

Pope Francis is setting the right tone, inviting both a Jew and a Muslim to be part of his official delegation. They’re old friends: Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, with whom the future pope coauthored a 2010 book, and Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic. A Vatican spokesman defined the choice to include leaders of other faiths in the papal party as an “absolute novelty.”

In terms of inter-faith relations, Francis may carry less baggage than any pope who has ever visited the Holy Land.

As a non-European, Francis isn’t associated by most Jews with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, while most Muslims don’t tie him to the Crusades or the “clash of civilizations.” They know the pope’s record of outreach in Argentina, including having a private Christmas dinner every year with the director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, visiting a mosque and an Arabic school, and inviting Jewish and Muslim leaders to join him for celebrations of Argentina’s Independence Day.

As popes have done in the past, Francis will visit the Dome of the Rock to meet Muslim leaders, and will pray at the Western Wall followed by a session with the chief rabbis of Israel.

Francis is not expected to deliver a breathtaking new vision for inter-faith relations, though Skorka made an interesting point in a recent lecture in Rome about the pope’s approach. When Europeans set the agenda, Skorka said, talk is usually about the burdens of the past. With Francis, the focus is on what religions can do together right now, especially for the poor.

Fourth and finally, there’s the political subtext.

For decades, the Vatican’s diplomatic line on the Middle East has favored a two-state solution with security guarantees for Israel, sovereignty for the Palestinians, and a special status for Jerusalem and holy sites. The question is not whether the new pontiff will uphold that position (he will), and certainly not whether he’ll be energetic about promoting peace. It couldn’t be otherwise for the first pope named Francis.

The drama is instead whether this popular pope can spend some of his political capital to shame each side into making concessions that will at least allow them to resume talking.

By themselves, papal trips rarely change the world. If Francis accomplishes even a fraction of his ambitious agenda, however, this one could go down as among the most memorable chapters of his papacy.

The pope on Martians and divorce

Francis may not exactly be a spellbinding orator, but he has a gift for arresting bits of imagery that often say more in a sentence than whole volumes of theological reflection.

The latest example came on Monday, when Francis delivered his regular impromptu homily during morning Mass at the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where he resides. Reflecting on a New Testament passage describing the early Christian church decision to accept Gentiles in addition to Jews, Francis called it an open-door policy with broad implications.

In that spirit, the pontiff said that if a band of Martians showed up tomorrow wanting to be baptized as Christians, he would happily do so. He added a rhetorical question destined to join his “Who am I to judge?” line about gays as a classic expression of his pastoral approach.

“Who are we to close the door?” he asked.

“When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent!’” Francis said, adding that the Holy Spirit “makes unthinkable choices . . . unimaginable!”

Francis in no way tied his reflection to any policy debate currently facing the Church. Nonetheless, many commentators couldn’t help but connect the dots between his theoretical embrace of extraterrestrials and the more practical question of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, which figures to be at the heart of the debate during this October’s Synod of Bishops on the family.

(A “synod” is a summit of bishops and other Catholic leaders from around the world summoned to advise the pope on a particular topic. Church law currently bars Catholics who divorce and remarry without obtaining an annulment, a declaration that one or more of the conditions for a valid marriage was never satisfied, from receiving communion and the other sacraments.)

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica, for instance, drew this conclusion from Francis’ musings about Martians: “The pope addressed his message above all to the bishops who in the upcoming synods will have to express themselves on the admission to the sacraments of divorced and remarried couples, as well as a different pastoral approach to unmarried couples.”

Whether or not that’s actually what Francis had in mind, there’s little doubt he already has done almost everything a pope can do to prime the pump for the debate in the synod. Beginning with comments aboard the papal plane coming back from Brazil in July, he’s repeatedly dropped hints that he’s open to reconsidering the traditional discipline regarding divorced and remarried Catholics. In February he invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to speak to all the cardinals of the world, knowing that Kasper would likely argue for change, and that’s precisely what he did.

At the moment, there seem to be two theories percolating in Rome about what Francis is up to regarding divorced and remarried Catholics.

The first holds that the politically savvy Francis is trying to signal to the divorced and remarried that the Church understands their pain and is struggling to reach out to them, without really intending to overturn existing teaching and discipline.

According to this theory, Francis knows that allowing people in a second marriage to receive communion would have mammoth implications for moral and sacramental theology as well as canon law, and that it would also be hard to square with the clear Biblical teaching on marriage: “What God has joined, let no one separate.” Knowing that the eventual decision can’t be one that contradicts Jesus’ words, this theory holds that Francis is trying to soften the blow by letting people know it isn’t an easy call to make.

The second theory holds that Francis really is inclined to change but understands that there’s resistance among many bishops and theologians, so he’s deliberately going slow and trying to bring people along.

According to this view, Francis to some extent is caught between two instincts. On the one hand is his personal commitment to mercy, and on the other is his determination to be a “collegial” pope, meaning making decisions in concert with local bishops rather than simply imposing his will. By that logic, Francis is waiting to see what comes out of the synod before pulling the trigger on a policy change.

The meeting this October may not fully clarify which of these theories is correct, since it’s only the opening act of a two-stage process, with another session of the synod scheduled for 2015.

Whichever way things shake out, one thing seems for sure: October is shaping up as a Catholic version of must-see TV.

An Indian theologian in trouble

A colleague asked me this week if I thought the story of the Vatican’s doctrinal inquiry into an Indian Jesuit theologian named Fr. Michael Amaladoss will have any legs, by which she meant whether it could reframe perceptions of Pope Francis as a kinder, gentler, less censorious sort of pontiff.

My answer was “no,” but before coming to that, here’s a brief bit of background.

Amaladoss, 77, is a former senior official in the Jesuit order who was a key adviser to the former Jesuit superior Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. His academic interest is in what experts call the theology of religious pluralism, meaning how Christianity understands the other great religions of the world.

In broad strokes, Amaladoss is part of a movement in Catholic theology that tends to see non-Christian religions as legitimate vehicles of salvation in their own right, perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit and associated in a mysterious fashion with Jesus Christ, but without explicit reference to Christianity.

Amaladoss and other Asian theologians often argue that this way of seeing religious diversity reflects a distinctively Asian perspective and experience.

The Vatican has long worried that this tendency is at odds with orthodox Christian belief in Christ as the lone and unique savior of the world, which was the impetus for a controversial 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger titled Dominus Iesus. It was also the motive for a series of doctrinal investigations against several theologians listed above, including a process against the Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis that led to a critical Vatican notification in 2001.

In that context, it’s not terribly surprising that the Vatican’s doctrinal office has kept its eyes on Amaladoss. Yet there are two reasons why this may not put much of a dent in public perceptions of Francis.

First, it’s not clear that there’s any disciplinary edge to the Vatican’s interest. While Amaladoss himself has not commented on the story, the top Jesuit official in South Asia told reporters that Amaladoss has not been threatened with any reprimand, but instead was asked to come to Rome in early April for a “friendly” dialogue about evangelization and how to proclaim Jesus in an Asian context. He made it sound less like an inquisition and more like a professional consultation.

Even if that benign dialogue were to morph into a disciplinary process, the Vatican’s doctrinal office has been considerably more restrained about these things in recent years, rarely imposing punitive measures such as restrictions on teaching or publishing. At most, it generally issues critical notices on specific works, which amount to little more than bad book reviews. Theologians and their supporters may be irked, but it’s hard for outsiders to get worked up over such relatively anemic measures.

Second, even if Amaladoss is hit with a sanction, it probably wouldn’t change much about Francis’ public image because it runs up against the power of the broader narrative.

Under Benedict XVI, a crackdown on a theologian would get widespread media play because it fit the narrative of a stern, conservative leader cracking heads. Francis, however, isn’t framed in those terms. Instead, he’s seen as a maverick populist and a reformer. Calling a theologian to task doesn’t fit the storyline, and therefore probably wouldn’t draw the same level of coverage and commentary.

In terms of media reaction, in other words, the Amaladoss situation hints at a key difference in perceptions. Under Benedict, the working assumption was that everything people didn’t like about the Church was because of the pope; under Francis, it’s that everything they don’t like is in spite of the pope.

Other notes from the Vatican

Now for three other quick notes from the Vatican beat this week.

First, on Friday Pope Francis unexpectedly canceled his morning audiences after saying his usual Mass at the Domus Santa Marta. That move came a day after the Vatican announced that the pope was postponing a planned visit on Sunday to the Roman shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love. In both cases officials said the pope needed to rest in advance of his trip to the Holy Land, adding on Friday that he’s suffering from a slight cold. The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, played down any suggestion of a health crisis, telling reporters that “if you’d been out in the open for three hours Wednesday morning,” referring to the pope’s general audience that day in St. Peter’s Square, “you’d probably have a cold too.”

Still, these concessions offer a reminder that Francis is 77, and despite his seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy, he and his aides will probably have to become increasingly selective about what to put on his calendar in order to preserve his strength.

Second, Lombardi also confirmed on Friday that a possible papal trip to the Philippines, with a stopover in Sri Lanka, remains under consideration for the early months of 2015, possibly in January or February. Lombardi cautioned, however, that there’s been no site visit by a Vatican advance team, so things are still in the preliminary stages. If the trip takes place, it would become Francis’ second outing to Asia, since he’s already scheduled to visit South Korea this August.

Assuming Francis does go to the Philippines, it ought to be a barn-burner of a trip. When John Paul visited Manila for World Youth Day in 1995, he drew a crowd estimated at around 4 million to 5 million, making it among the largest Christian gatherings of all time, and there’s no reason to assume the turnout would be any less massive now. The Philippines remains one of the most profoundly Catholic nations on earth; street signs in downtown Manila, for instance, read “Caution: Masses and Prayers Always in Progress,” and even commercial shopping malls have chapels with several daily services.

Third, Pope Francis spent most of Tuesday morning this week meeting with the Council of the Synod of Bishops going over the working document, called an Instrumentum laboris, for the upcoming meeting of the synod in October. Francis has taken part in two previous meetings of the council, actually leaving the Domus Santa Marta to go down to the synod’s office on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad street leading away from St. Peter’s Square. (As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York put it to the Globe, Francis arrived without any fanfare “just carrying his lunch box . . . we couldn’t believe it.”)

In the past, popes haven’t bothered to take part in preparatory sessions for the synod, leaving that task to aides. It’s another sign, therefore, of how committed Francis is to the synod, both as a statement about collegiality and the specific topic of the family.