World Youth Day volunteers hand out flyers to residents near Our Lady of Bonsucesso de Inha'ma Church in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. (CNS/Oscar Durand)

World Youth Day volunteers hand out flyers to residents near Our Lady of Bonsucesso de Inha’ma Church in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. (CNS/Oscar Durand)

VATICAN, July 12, 2013 (CNS) — When Pope Francis met Brazil President Dilma Rousseff at the Vatican in March, just after his Mass of inauguration as pope, he reportedly started their conversation by saying, “I’d like to thank you for everything you have done for the poor.”

According to someone who was present, the pope also commended the president for having cut short a January trip to Chile to travel the central Brazilian city of Santa Maria, where she consoled survivors and families of victims of a disastrous nightclub fire.

Pope Francis assured Rousseff that he would be traveling to Brazil in July, fulfilling a commitment by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI to attend World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Adding that his visit would include a pilgrimage to the national shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, the pope gave the president a copy of a document adopted by Latin American bishops who met at Aparecida in 2007.

As the first Latin American pontiff prepares to travel to his native continent on his first international trip as pope, July 22-29, his remarks to the Brazilian leader suggest that his approach to the region and its challenges will exemplify the commitment to social action and evangelization that he has made a defining feature of his young pontificate.

With his emphasis on the promotion of earthly justice and peace, Pope Francis has made clear that the church values humanitarian efforts by those, such as Rousseff, who do not identify themselves as religious believers, let alone Christians. As he said in a homily in May, “the possibility of doing good is something we all have … even the atheists.”

Pope Francis also favors swift and direct attention to critical social problems, such his own visit to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa July 8, which he said was inspired by the deaths of African migrants who had drowned trying to reach Europe in the preceding weeks. The pope called those deaths a “thorn in the heart” for him, and denounced richer nations’ indifference to such suffering.

So the protest movement that broke out in Brazilian cities last month, which some observers have feared could distract from the papal visit, may prove to have been a fitting prelude to it.

Whether or not Pope Francis explicitly mentions the massive demonstrations — whose targets have included the high cost of transportation, government corruption and public spending on sports events instead of education and health services — his words will surely resonate with their driving concerns, particularly when he addresses the residents of a Rio slum July 25 and, two days later, what the official Vatican schedule refers to as the “ruling class of Brazil.”

No event on the pope’s itinerary will be richer in significance than his pilgrimage to Aparecida July 24. For someone so devoted to the mother of Jesus — he started his first full day as pope with a visit to Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, and later asked the bishops of Portugal to dedicate his pontificate to Our Lady of Fatima — the place holds personal importance by virtue of its status as Brazil’s foremost Marian shrine.

But Aparecida also matters to Pope Francis as the site in 2007 of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, who approved a concluding document of which the pope himself, then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a principal author.

That document, which the pope will likely refer to during his visit to the shrine and then in his meeting with Latin American bishops July 28, includes strong language about the “building of a just and fraternal society” that ensures “health, food, education, housing and work for all,” within the context of an evangelizing mission in which all the baptized are “called to proclaim the Gospel.”

For Pope Francis, the pursuit of social justice is inseparable from faith in Christ, and ultimately impossible without it.

“Confess Jesus,” he told the College of Cardinals in his first homily as pope.”If we don’t do that, we will be a compassionate NGO (nongovernmental organization).”

As the pope writes in his first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” released July 5, modern secular ideologies have failed to bring justice and peace because they “sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a common reference to a common father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.”

Pope Francis celebrates social action as laudable in itself not because he considers it a good separate from evangelization, but because he considers it a form of evangelization.

He writes in his encyclical that St. Francis of Assisi and Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, iconic exemplars of charity, both “found mediators of light in those who suffer.”

“Christians know that suffering cannot be eliminated,” Pope Francis writes, “yet it can have meaning and become an act of love and entrustment into the hands of God who does not abandon us; in this way it can serve as a moment of growth in faith and love.”

As he brings his message of social justice to Latin America and beyond, Pope Francis manifestly does so in the belief that as the church draws closer to the poor, the poor draw it closer to God. (Francis X. Rocca)