ROME — For a pope pulled against his will into his church’s sexual abuse maelstrom and tussles with conservative clergy, a trip to Africa that begins on Wednesday may offer Francis a chance to be the pope he wanted to be.
On his return to sub-Saharan Africa, his 31st trip abroad, he will find himself on the front lines of poverty, climate change and migration — his signature issues — while emphasizing Africa’s centrality to the future of the church.
His arrival in Mozambique, followed by stops in two island nations off its coast — Madagascar and Mauritius — will provide a sort of thematic homecoming for a pope who has prioritized what his Jesuit religious order calls the global “peripheries.”
“Effectively it is a visit that touches many themes close to his heart,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit priest in Rome who speaks often with Pope Francis.
He said that Francis has “confronted the questions that history has put to him,” but added, “certainly the pope loves to touch the places that have grave wounds due to war or natural calamities.”
He will have no shortage on this trip.
In Mozambique, a cyclone in March killed more than 1,000 people, and an election in October will test a new cease-fire aimed at ending a long-running insurgency. Foreign exploitation of natural resources has placed added pressure on the country’s politics and environment.
Flying east to Madagascar on Friday, Francis will find a vast island facing extreme poverty and deforestation, as well as rising seas and extreme storms that scientists attribute to climate change.
Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, with its many religions and immigrants, will give Francis, a champion for migrants in the face of right-wing populism, another unique platform to weigh in from.
Francis has never stopped talking about these issues, but the political upheaval and church scandals of the intervening years drowned him out, and he sometimes seemed relegated to a forgotten figure. The rise of anti-migrant nationalists, including Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Victor Orban in Hungary, often left him sounding like a lone voice in a populist wilderness.
“Francis is more isolated that he was at the beginning of his pontificate,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican expert and the author of the book “The Loneliness of the Pope.”
He noted that President Trump had pulled the United States out of climate change accords and that Brazil, near Francis’s native Argentina, had elected President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has encouraged deforestation and has been slow in responding to the fires in the Amazon.
By visiting Africa, Mr. Politi said, Francis had the opportunity to get “back to several themes that he has considered central since the beginning.”
He wants to redirect attention to those themes now, but also wants them to resonate after he is gone.
On Sunday, Francis, who has steadily remade the church in his own image, announced the elevation of 13 new cardinals, including ten electors to the group of cardinals that will choose his successor.
He named bishops known for their pastoral approach and tolerance toward homosexuals, but also for their geographic diversity. Africa increased its representation in the cardinals’ electorate to 14 percent, while Europe and the United States lost ground.
In his trip, Francis will focus on “looking to the future, starting from the many positive signs that are there within the continent,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State told Vatican News, the church’s in-house outlet, last weekend.
The most positive signs in Africa are perhaps also the most basic for a church struggling to fill the pews and pulpits.
Africa is a source of new faithful and the priests who are increasingly missing from Europe and the United States.
According the Vatican’s Book of Statistics, the Catholic population increased by 14.2 million people between 2016 and 2018, bringing the total number of Catholics in the world to 1.3 billion people.
Growth occurred everywhere but in Europe, where the number of Catholics plummeted by another 240,000. Africa registered the most growth, adding 6.3 million more Catholics in just two years.
While Europe continues to be a dry well for priestly vocations, Africa is a wellspring.
And while those new priests and faithful may be more conservative, and less tolerant of homosexuality, than more liberal corners of the Western church favored by Francis, they are also well versed in the issues Francis cares most about.
Only months ago, in March, cyclone Idai hit Mozambique hard and killed more than a thousand people. Its devastation of crops affected millions more. Francis made his focus on the environment clear early in his pontificate, when in June 2015 he wrote “Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment.
The Vatican’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said on Monday that Francis would not visit Beira, the city hardest his by the storms, so as to avoid putting an extra burden on its construction, but that a delegation of faithful from the town would see him in Maputo.
He also said Francis would focus on the damage wrought by politics and war in the former Portuguese colony.
“My heart reaches out to and embraces all of you, with a special place for those who live in difficulty,” Francis said in a video message to the people of Mozambique before his trip, during which he will give his speeches in Portuguese. He urged reconciliation in Mozambique and “all over Africa.”
The pope’s trip, in which he will meet with government officials and diplomats, comes only weeks before national elections on Oct. 15 that will prove to be the first test of recently signed cease-fire agreement.
In August, Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, signed a peace agreement with Ossufo Momade, the leader of the country’s main opposition group, Renamo, requiring the disarmament of the party’s armed wing.
Cardinal Parolin told Vatican News that the pope’s visit coincided with a “new page in the history of Mozambique” and that Francis’s emphasis on dialogue extended not just to the country, but for conflict-burdened areas around the world.
“This is what the Pope asks of us: a new mentality, a new approach to these situations,” he said.
But Mozambique, where Catholics make up 28 percent of the population of 30 million, is clearly in the front of his mind.
The United Nations has ranked Mozambique among the world’s least developed countries, with 80 percent unable to afford an adequate diet. A 15-year civil-war killed about a million people after its independence in 1975. In recent months, attacks by Islamist militants in the northern Cabo Delgado province have increased against local security forces.
“We have a lot of challenges,” said Rev. Bernardo Suate, a priest from Mozambique who works in Vatican Radio’s Portuguese section, adding that he and other Catholics hoped Francis “will help us be strong in facing them.”