A new pope from Latin America who wants to build "a church for the poor" is stirring hopes among advocates of liberation theology, a movement of social activism that alarmed former popes by delving into leftist politics.
Pope Francis has what it takes to fix a church "in ruins" that has "lost its respect for what is sacred", prominent liberation theologian Leonardo Boff said.
"With this pope, a Jesuit and a pope from the Third World, we can breathe happiness," Father Boff said at a Buenos Aires book fair. "Pope Francis has both the vigour and tenderness that we need to create a new spiritual world."
The 74-year-old Brazilian theologian was pressured to remain silent by previous popes who tried to draw a hard line between socially active priests and leftist politics.
As Argentina's leading cardinal before he became pope, Francis reinforced this line, suggesting in 2010 that reading the Gospel with a Marxist interpretation only gets priests in trouble.
But Father Boff says the label of a closed-minded conservative simply does not fit with Francis. "Pope Francis comes with the perspective that many of us in Latin America share. In our churches we do not just discuss theological theories, like in European churches. Our churches work together to support universal causes, causes like human rights, from the perspective of the poor, the destiny of humanity that is suffering, services for people living on the margins."
The liberation theology movement, which seeks to free lives as well as souls, emerged in the 1960s and quickly spread, especially in Latin America.
Priests and church laypeople became deeply involved in human rights and social struggles. Some were caught up in clashes between repressive governments and rebels, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
The movement's martyrs include El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose increasing criticism of his country's military-run government provoked his assassination as he was saying Mass in 1980. He was killed by thugs connected to the military hierarchy a day after he preached that "no soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God". His killing presaged a civil war that killed nearly 90,000 over the next 12 years.
Archbishop Romero's beatification cause languished under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI due to their opposition to liberation theology, but he was put back on track to becoming a saint day after Francis became pope.