On the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, the Rev. Stefano Nastasi threw the ecclesiastic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

Legions of largely Muslim refugees looking for a better life in Europe were reaching the island from North Africa only to perish, be turned back or be sent to languish in camps. Troubled by their plight, the priest dispatched a letter to the Vatican: Would Pope Francis come and highlight the humanitarian crisis in his new backyard?

When the answer finally came, Nastasi said he was as surprised as anyone: Why yes, in fact, the Holy Father would. In something of a trial run ahead of the first major trip of his papacy — a weeklong visit to Brazil from Monday — Francis touched down on the island July 8 and promptly acted in a way that got observers buzzing about the rise of a revolutionary pope.