, Guayaquil, Ecuador, Jul 7 – Pope Francis celebrated an open-air mass with hundreds of thousands of faithful under scorching heat in Ecuador on Monday, highlighting the importance of family on his return to his home region.
The first pope from Latin America made an impassioned plea to fulfill the “social debt” toward families as he addressed some 800,000 people in a park in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, according to official figures.
A sea of Catholics, many from neighboring countries, held pictures of the pope or images of the Virgin Mary at Samanes Park as the Argentine-born pontiff waved from his popemobile before saying mass.
Firefighters sprayed the crowd with water to keep them cool amid punishing heat as many shielded themselves from the sun with umbrellas. Many had camped out all night ahead of the event.
Authorities had anticipated a crowd of more than one million people on the second day of the pope’s trip to the region, which will also include stops in Bolivia and Paraguay.
“Family embodies a great social wealth that other institutions cannot substitute. It must be helped and strengthened,” said the pope, who dedicated his homily to families as the backbone of society.
Using an analogy that drew smiles, the pope said that the Virgin Mary “is not a demanding mother, nor is she a mother-in-law that looks to get pleasure out of our inexperience, errors or carelessness. Mary is simply mother, she is attentive and caring.”
Family will be one of the themes that will be debated at the Vatican in October during a synod of bishops, as the church tackles hot-button issues such as single-parenthood, divorce and gay marriage.
Poverty will also be a major topic during this South American tour by “the pope of the poor.”
Another throng of worshippers is expected for the pope’s second Ecuadoran mass on Tuesday in Bicentennial Park in the capital Quito.
It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades.
Irma Guaita, 49, shielded her head from the sun with a piece of cardboard.
“The sun doesn’t matter because God gave me a chance to see him,” she said.
Olimpia Herrera, a 62-year-old teacher, said she was convinced by the pope’s words on family, which “we needed because there are many homes that are broken up.”
– ‘An act of humility’ –
Before the mass, Francis, the first Jesuit pope, visited the Shrine of the Divine Mercy on the outskirts of town, where he blessed some 2,000 people, including a group of people with disabilities.
“I won’t charge you anything, but please pray for me,” Francis quipped.
After the mass, he will have lunch with fellow Jesuits, among others, before returning to Quito for a meeting with President Rafael Correa and a visit to the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Fellow Jesuit Francisco Cortes, whom Francis last saw 30 years ago, will attend the lunch.
“For me it is an act of humility by this man, to remember a person… without any merit, who is nothing special. He insisted he wants to see me,” Cortes, who is in his 90s, told AFP.
The papal visit coincides with a time of political tension in Ecuador, with Correa facing growing calls to leave in some of the biggest anti-government demonstrations to shake the country in recent years.
Francis, who regularly wades into political issues, urged Correa to promote “dialogue and participation without exclusions.”
– Outspoken advocate –
The pope’s last visit to South America was a triumphant trip to Brazil in 2013 that culminated with three million people gathering along Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro for a mass at the end of a Catholic youth festival.
Many of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics hail from Latin America, despite the rising popularity of evangelical beliefs and practices in recent years.
During the trip, Francis is due to deliver no fewer than 22 speeches and catch seven flights covering a total of 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles).
All three of the countries he is visiting are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.
When Pope John Paul II visited Ecuador in 1985, about 94 percent of the population was Catholic, compared to 80 percent today in the country of 16 million.
The decrease has come as evangelical churches have attracted huge numbers of followers, many of whom are indigenous people disenchanted by a lack of attention from the Catholic hierarchy.
The pope will visit Bolivia on Wednesday before going to Paraguay on Friday. He returns to the Vatican on July 12.