WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Pope Francis became the first Jesuit to reach the papacy in 2013. On Tuesday, the pope will make his first visit to the United States, where Jesuit influence remains strong.
As the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church with nearly 17,000 members in 112 countries, the Society of Jesus has influenced men of faith for nearly half a millennium.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, 78, entered the Jesuits in 1958 as a novice -- nearly a decade before he was ordained as a priest. Francis arrived to Cuba on Saturday ahead of his six-day trip to the United States, where he will travel to Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.
Pope Francis was critical in helping mediate efforts between the United States and Cuba to help restore diplomatic relations.
The Society of Jesus was established in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, a Spanish soldier and aristocrat, who urged fellow Jesuits to "find God in all things." Jesuits advocate for social justice, including immigration reform, poverty relief and criminal justice reform.
"We are pastors, teachers, and chaplains. We are also doctors, lawyers, and astronomers, among many other roles in Church and society. In our varied ministries, we care for the whole person: body, mind, and soul," reads the Society of Jesus' website description.
There are 30 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. About 9 percent of U.S. members of Congress graduated from Jesuit schools, including Boston College, Georgetown University, Saint Peter's University and the University of San Francisco.
"I feel I'm a Jesuit in my spirituality. I still think like a Jesuit," Francis said soon after being elected pope.
Jesuits are often seen as a progressive order because of their close ties to science and social advocacy. The pope's appointment brought progressive changes to the Catholic Church.
More recently, Francis said priests can forgive women who have had an abortion if they seek forgiveness during an upcoming extraordinary jubilee and he also announced changes to the Catholic marriage annulment process, making it cheaper and faster.
Francis also released an encyclical on climate change, where he urged for worldwide environmental policy -- warning that humans threaten the planet.
Climate change "represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades," the Pope wrote. "We are not gods. The Earth was here before us and has been given to us."
About 34 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, a five percent increase since 2007 -- with more than 25 percent of them born outside of the United States. There are about 51 million Catholic adults in the United States in 2014, down about 3 million from 2007.
About half of people in the United States raised as Catholics have left the church, with 41 percent never returning. About 66 percent believe it is acceptable for same-sex couple to raise children and 46 percent believe the Church should recognize same-sex marriage.
Francis has heralded controversial changes within the Catholic Church, an institution long associated with conservative stances that have lost sway with many believers.
But Francis' visit to the United States seems to come at a key moment for the Church, as evolving views of some believers conflict with more traditional approaches.
Francis' relatively liberal policies have gained him praise, particularly in the United States, where about 86 percent of American Catholics view the pope favorably.