Vatican City — Pope Francis will depart Sunday on a much-anticipated trip to Latin America, seen as a homecoming for the Argentine pope and likely to draw attention to key challenges in the region.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio shocked the world in 2013 when he became the first Latin American to be elected pope. More than two years later, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires continues to surprise Vatican watchers with his ambitious reform agenda and lively personality.
Francis has not only brought new life to the Catholic church but has also weighed heavily into Latin American politics by brokering a deal that saw U.S.-Cuba relations renewed after more than 50 years.
While the pope's diplomatic efforts will be celebrated during his September visit to both those countries, his imminent Latin America trip will see him address important social issues in the three countries he visits.
The pope will spend about two days each in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, meeting the countries' leaders and dedicating substantial time to addressing those at the margins of society.
His journey will take him to a care home for the elderly in Ecuador, a rehabilitation center in Bolivia and an impoverished area of the Paraguayan capital, Asunción. In doing so, Francis will highlight his mission to create a "poor church" -- a major theme of his papacy, which has also seen the Vatican launch initiatives to help Rome's homeless.
Francis will put aside speeches during much of the trip, talking directly to his Spanish-speaking audience and using his extensive knowledge of the challenges confronting each of the three countries.
Although Paraguay boasts the highest proportion of Catholics of the three countries -- 93 percent -- the church has come under scrutiny during Francis' papacy. In September, the pope removed a bishop in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este after accusations the churchman covered up sexual abuse and embezzled funds from his diocese.
High on the pope's agenda will be the poverty that grips 24 percent of Paraguay's population, according to 2013 World Bank data. The pope will also address financial hardship in Bolivia, where the most recent figures show 45 percent of people were below the poverty line in 2011.
While the situation is somewhat better in Ecuador (23 percent below the poverty line in 2014), the pope's meeting with civil society representatives will likely touch on the status of indigenous peoples.
Francis may also bring his climate change campaign to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, after the publication of his historic environmental encyclical last month. The country is home to the Galapagos Islands, known globally as a haven of biodiversity, but Ecuador's government has come under pressure for its management of its natural resources on the mainland.
While environmentalists and other campaigners have said they hope the pope can wield a positive influence over Latin America, others just hope the 78-year-old pope can keep up with his packed agenda.
Francis will have time to relax once he returns to Rome on July 13, settling into his summer agenda, which sees the majority of the pope's audiences suspended.