ROME — While many lessons could be drawn from Pope Francis’ July 5-13 visit to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay, his first outing to Spanish-speaking Latin America, perhaps the most important is that to understand this papacy, one has to look to the global south and its challenges.

Just as Pope St. John Paul II’s papacy was shaped by Poland’s experience under communism, and Benedict XVI’s by Western European concerns such as relativism and secularism, Francis’ pontificate is defined in large part by the problems he encountered over several decades as a Latin American pastor and bishop.

A catalog of those core themes would include marginalization, illiteracy, inequality and poverty, sexism, corruption, governments of socialist inspiration, what South Americans often call “Jockey Club elites” who dominate their societies, as well as racism and ecological devastation.

Overall, Francis delivered a mixed verdict on where things stand on his home continent.

“The Latin American Church has a great wealth,” he told journalists traveling on the papal plane. “It’s a young Church with a certain freshness. I’ve wished to give encouragement to this young Church, and I believe that this Church can give us much.”

However, he had no qualms about being critical as well. In Ecuador, for instance, he said it’s wrong to call Latin America one of the “most Christian” continents in the world when there are so many who have nothing to eat.

“Sharing bread is a Christian principle,” he said. Poverty in the region, he said, is not the result of lack of resources, but the consequence of a “perverse” economic and political system.

Beyond that, Francis’ week-long outing can be analyzed in terms of the different realities each nation he visited faces, which in turn sum up the situation of a continent and much of the developing world – the “periphery,” as Francis is fond of calling it.

  • In Ecuador, Francis issued his most impassioned appeals to protect the environment.
  • In Bolivia, the pontiff stressed the eradication of poverty and the need to make the poor part of the solution.
  • In Paraguay, the most Catholic country of the three, Francis called for revitalizing the Church’s missionary zeal.

Francis delivered five speeches in Ecuador, three of which were underpinned by his recently-published teaching document on the environment, Laudato Si’. He declared that greater protection of nature, including the Amazon rainforest, is no longer a “mere recommendation, but a requirement for survival.”

The pontiff called for universities to teach about care for the earth, and he insisted that civil society not destroy natural resources for short-term benefits.

“We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!” Francis said.

His comments come mere months before international companies begin drilling for oil in Ecuador’s remote Yasuni National Park, part of the Amazon, a decision that has generated strong social revolt.

Protesters have called for the resignation of President Rafael Correa, who in 2008 modified the constitution precisely recognizing the “rights” of the Pachamama (Mother Earth).

While in Ecuador, Francis also made an appeal for a united Latin America, saying that the cry for freedom today is as urgent and pressing as the cry for independence 200 years ago.

“We must not respond with nonchalance, or complain we do not have the resources to do the job, or that the problems are too big,” the Argentinean-born pontiff said. “Instead, we must respond by taking up the cry of Jesus and accepting the grace and challenge of being builders of unity.”

In Bolivia, he delivered only four speeches, but the third was among the longest of his pontificate. It came before the International Conference of Popular Movements, a collection of non-governmental organizations representing street sellers, fishermen, laborers, farmers, and members of the “original peoples.”

He delivered a 55-minute speech that day, spelling out his vision for a true revolution.

“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot,” he said. “I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”

Let us begin “by acknowledging that change is needed” because, the pope said, there is something wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, families without homes, laborers without rights, people whose dignity is not respected, senseless wars being fought, and acts of fratricidal violence.

“Do we realize that the system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?” Francis asked, reiterating his call for a more inclusive economy that doesn’t depend on welfare programs that are only temporary solutions.

“They will never be able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free, creative, participatory, and solidarity work,” Francis said, echoing his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

With more than 45 percent of the population living in poverty, Bolivia is among the poorest countries in Latin America. While statistics show that poverty has decreased significantly in recent years, observers note that much of it has to do with an expansion of state welfare programs that mask the lack of job opportunity.

Talking about his involvement with popular movements during his airborne news conference, Francis said these are global movements that organize among themselves to “move forward, to be able to live,” because they believe trade unions no longer represent them.

He defended his embrace of these movements, many of socialist origin, as an application of the Church’s social doctrine.

“I follow the Church!” he said. “It’s not a fight against an enemy; it’s the catechism,” referring to the official collection of Catholic teaching.

If, in Ecuador and Bolivia, the pope felt the warmth of being back on his home continent for the second time since his election in 2013, in Paraguay he truly felt at home. Wherever he went, hordes of Argentinians were waiting for him, many of Paraguayan descent.

His comfort level was made clear by the fact that he went off-the-cuff several times during most of his addresses, something he rarely did in the other two countries.

For instance, speaking to a group of representatives of civil society that included President Horacio Cartes, Francis lambasted corruption and extortion.

“One method which does not give people the freedom to take on their responsibilities in society is extortion: you need to do this in order to obtain that,” he said. “Extortion is still corruption, and corruption is the gangrene of a people.”

Sunday was almost exclusively dedicated to the Catholic Church and the need to “spread the Gospel.”

He spent part of his morning with the poorest of the poor, then celebrated Mass for hundreds of thousands of families, and in the evening, he met with local youth. In all three instances, he called for a renewed missionary zeal.

During Mass, he questioned those who reduce missionary work to plans and programs.

“How many times do we see evangelization as involving any number of strategies, tactics, maneuvers, techniques, as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments?” Francis said.

“Today, the Lord says to us quite clearly: In the mentality of the Gospel, you do not convince people with arguments, strategies, or tactics. You convince them by learning how to welcome them.”

On Saturday, also during his address to representatives of civil society, Francis called the Jesuit missions in the New World from the 16th and 17th centuries “the most significant experiences of evangelization and social organization in history.”

Two days after apologizing for sins committed during this period while in Bolivia, he then regarded the Jesuit “reductions” as a model of an economy and a society working toward the common good.

That missionary flourish, too, was a clear response to the dynamics of the global south. In Latin America and other regions, mushrooming Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, as well as a rising tide of religious indifference, have eaten into traditional Catholic strongholds.

To grasp where Francis is going, in other words, one has to understand where he comes from, and there’s no better example of the power of that insight than his eventful Latin American homecoming.