Hundreds of thousands are gathering in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador Monday for a mass to be held by Pope Francis, who has returned to Latin America for a nine-day pilgrimage that will include trips to Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Argentine pope, visiting his home continent for the second time since becoming pontiff in 2013, landed in Ecuador Sunday on a mission to reach out to the region’s poorest and most marginalized with a message of compassion for the weak and respect for the environment, reports say.
He received a warm welcome that included a youth orchestra, local dignitaries, and a crowd of half a million that lined the road to the Mariscal Sucre International Airport.
“Dear friends, I begin my visit filled with excitement and hope for the days ahead,” the pope said in a short speech that followed remarks from Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who greeted the pontiff on the tarmac.
“From the peak of Chimborazo to the Pacific coast; from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands, may you never lose the ability to thank God for what he has done and is doing for you,” Pope Francis continued. “May you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country.”
The message is especially relevant for Ecuador, a Pacific nation of 15 million that is home to some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems.
It is also a country heavily dependent on oil, which accounts for 96 percent of Ecuador’s exports. Low crude prices have hit the nation’s economy hard, forcing Mr. Correa to cut government spending and launch oil drilling and mining projects in the Amazon rainforest – to the dismay of key sections of the local populace, particularly environmentalists and indigenous groups.
It is to those indigenous and marginalized communities that Pope Francis hopes to reach out during his trip, and not just in Ecuador: He is also expected to visit inmates in Bolivia’s notorious Palmasola prison and tour Paraguay's Bañado Norte shantytown, NBC News reported.
Among Latin America’s poorest nations, the three countries were a deliberate choice from Pope Francis, who throughout his papacy has called for the Catholic Church to be a “church for the poor.” The pontiff made a similar decision when he went to Europe, visiting Albania and Bosnia instead of richer, more influential countries, in an effort to encourage peace, renewal, and development in those nations’ society and politics, CBS News noted.
The pope will also work to “breathe new life into a Catholic Church suffering through a continentwide decline,” CNN reported. Nearly 80 percent of the population is Catholic in Ecuador, 77 percent in Bolivia, and 89 percent in Paraguay, according to the Pew Research Center, but recent decades have seen a drop in church attendance.
“Soon we will find out if there is a ‘Francis effect’ in his native region in terms of Mass attendance and participation in church life,” Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Catholicism and author of several books on spirituality in Latin America, told CNN.
The pope has 22 planned speeches for this trip, which is the first where he will speak entirely in Spanish, his mother tongue.
As of Monday morning, a million visitors had traveled to Guayaquil to hear the pontiff say Mass, city officials told the BBC.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.