Luis Bravo is a rising freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Philadelphia prepares for Pope Francis’ visit, he continues to make headlines as he uses the papacy's power to incite action in addressing many societal issues. Although the media has portrayed the Pope’s activism as novel, for centuries the Pope’s influence and power has extended past the Catholic Church and into the realm of policy.
The significant trend of political activism began with Pope Innocent III, who led the Catholic Church from 1198 until his death in 1216. Throughout his relatively short tenure he challenged the power of the English Crown, launched the Crusades in an effort the recover the Holy Land, and, most importantly, established the powerful doctrine of papal power within the church and, to an extent, secular affairs. As a result, historians regard him as the most powerful and significant pope of the Middle Ages. 
What truly differentiates the current Pope Francis, however, is the velocity at which the world feels his influence and the tenacity he has shown in addressing sensitive topics. He has garnered the world’s attention since his ascension to the papacy in March 2013, which was shrouded by the surprising departure of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the first modern pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415.  Like his predecessors, Pope Francis actively addresses various world issues, but he does so from a more progressive standpoint. Francis has better aligned the Catholic Church with modern standards, incidentally changing various conventions associated with the papacy and the Catholic Church.  The Pope has unabashedly discussed sensitive topics like gun rights, abortion, and economic inequality. However, his influence is most pronounced in the recent social policy changes in America and around the world.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will,” said Pope Francis in 2013, “who am I to judge?"  Despite the anti-gay stance of the Catholic Clergy, the Pope’s powerful statement of tolerance catalyzed a tonal shift in the Church.  With his inclusive message, Pope Francis began diversifying the heretofore orthodox Catholic religion. His comment was like a shot heard around the world, igniting pro same-sex marriage rallies across the globe. No area was so deeply influenced, however, as Illinois, where Pope Francis was directly cited as a primary factor in the passage of a gay marriage bill. As The Chicago Tribune reports, Francis’ statement “sparked a wave of soul-searching by several Catholic lawmakers who … were increasingly supportive of gay marriage.” 
More recently, the pope addressed climate change in an unprecedented report filling over one hundred pages with what is considered to be the “most forceful contribution on a topic by a pope.”  Released as an encyclical, a papal letter to Catholic followers around the world, it attempts to discuss contemporary issues, in this case climate change, in the context of church principles. In the Pope’s report, he not only affirms that climate change is a direct result of humankind, but links the degradation of the environment to poverty and societal inequality.  Authored by one of the world’s most trusted leaders, the Pope’s encyclical is expected to significantly expand environmental policy by converting skeptics of humanity’s impact on the environment into believers. It is also a call to political action for both major parties in America and a prelude to Francis’ speech to the UN this coming September. At the very least, his encyclical has reinvigorated the global conversation on climate change. However, the Pope’s message also has the potential of advancing the passage of environmental legislation across nations as more individuals adopt climate change as a real and moral issue. 
Pope Francis’ activism is felt internationally. He was considered an integral player in the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. On June 2013, Pope Francis began arbitrating a series of secret talks between the leaders of both countries to discuss the release of prisoners, and the ending of a decades’ old hostility dating back to the Cold War. The Pope pushed for a compromise in the fall of 2014, writing personal letters to both President Obama and President Castro inviting them to "resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.”  The secret talks reached their climax on December 2014 when both Presidents spoke simultaneously confirming their mutual effort to amend relations and gradually reverse the US embargo. Both presidents expressed their gratitude to Pope Francis for his role in negotiating the change in policy. 
In the brief time Francis has been the head of the Catholic Church, he has ushered in a wave of changes that have had a monumental impact on the global community. What was once considered a narrow institution has been widened, modernized, and rejuvenated by this singular figure. Still, Pope Francis is only at the beginning of his tenure, and society’s ills are far from cured. It will be interesting to see what action the Pope calls upon us to take next.
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