In the days since Pope Francis I was elected by the Papal Conclave, he has been quizzed on everything from his stance on the Falkland Islands to his role in Argentina's "dirty war." He has had to navigate diplomatic minefields -- why was Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe at his inauguration, while British Prime Minister David Cameron wasn't? And he has faced scrutiny over his position on social issues like marriage equality and women in the church. But at his inaugural mass last Tuesday, Francis showed once again where his focus has been since he first took his vows, and where he wants it to remain.
The pontiff, Francis told the hundreds of thousands in attendance, "must open his arms to protect all of God's people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important."
It's a message that's more relevant than ever: Francis's papacy begins at a time when the globe has never been more socially unequal, economically volatile, or environmentally unsustainable. This is a world where 870 million men, women, and children go to bed hungry every night, and where nearly one billion have no access to clean water; a world where whole countries are threatened with bankruptcy and seemingly stable regimes can collapse because of the price of grain; a world of manmade climate change and the plundering of creation for the few at the expense of the many.
The Roman Catholic Church, throughout its history, has worked for and alongside the poorest people in the world. Francis -- a man with a strong history of working for the poorest in his home country of Argentina -- now has the opportunity to reaffirm this focus, as well as expand the church's engagement on issues of poverty. But what can he actually hope to accomplish?
Much of the Catholic Church's work on poverty takes place at the ground level: It provides an estimated 25 percent of the care worldwide for people living with HIV and AIDS. It runs more than 5,000 hospitals, with nearly half of those located in the Africa and the Americas -- the Catholic Health Association of the United States is also the largest group of non-profit health care providers in the country. The church runs nearly 20,000 clinics around the world, more than 15,000 homes for the elderly, those who are terminally ill, and the disabled, and nearly 10,000 orphanages, mainly in Asia.
But there is always room for the church to do more. Because it spans the world and stands outside the market, business, and government, it is well placed to look at the world afresh -- especially at the beginning of a new papacy. It has the ability to offer a unique perspective on both the challenges of the poor and the actions of the rich that can cause poverty, from environmental degradation to the activities of global corporations. As pope, Francis can take advantage of the church's tremendous reach and influence to open up new conversations with different sectors of society on how to tackle these challenges productively.