When Latin America’s first pope announced he was traveling to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time, expectations were high. On Sunday, that historic encounter created a massive outpouring, as tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans cheered, chanted and showered Pope Francis with offerings.
Ecuador marks the beginning of a week-long, three-nation tour that includes Bolivia and Paraguay and that is being hailed as a homecoming of sorts for the Argentine-born pontiff.
“I thank God for having allowed me to return to Latin America and to be here with you today in this beautiful land of Ecuador,” the 78-year-old pope said in a brief speech after his arrival at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport.
Francis made most of the 24-mile trip from the airport to Quito in a conventional vehicle, but he spent the final leg in the “popemobile” — an open air, converted Jeep. At times, the outpouring was so enthusiastic that the crowds seemed to be using him for target practice, flinging hats into the vehicle and pelting him with flowers and live doves. Women broke through police lines to try to shove babies into his arms.
Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi estimated that 500,000 people had greeted the pope.
The trip is expected to highlight Francis’ solidarity with the poor. And President Rafael Correa, who met him at the airport, praised his calls for economic and social justice.
“How can we call ourselves the most Christian continent in the world when we’re also the most unequal?” Correa asked. “The fundamental moral question in Latin America is precisely the social question. Particularly, when, for the first time in history, poverty and misery on our continent are not the consequences of lacking resources but of social, economic and political systems that are perverse.”
The president has faced four weeks of protests sparked by tax hikes that he said are aimed at redistributing wealth. The administration has called for a national dialogue to quell the demonstrations, but the opposition says dissenting voices are being sidelined and squashed.
Francis seemed to make reference to that in his brief speech.
“We can find in the gospel a key to meeting contemporary challenges, respecting differences, fostering dialogue and participation without exclusion...[to] ensure a better future for everyone,” he said. “In these efforts, Mr. President, you can always count on the commitment and cooperation of the church.”
Correa also said that Francis’ recent encyclical about the environment had been embraced in Ecuador, where conservation is enshrined in the constitution. Correa joked that the pope is Argentine and that his colleague Dilma Rousseff claims God is Brazilian, but “Ecuador is definitely paradise.”
Close to the Vatican embassy, where Francis is staying, about a dozen people had gathered Sunday morning, armed with umbrellas and snacks, to stake out a clear view.
“When you see him on television, he already transmits a lot of spirituality,” said Santiago Llerena, a 33-year-old grocery-store worker. “I think seeing him in person will be even more of a spiritual experience.”
The trip marks several firsts for the pontiff. It’s the first time he will be addressing crowds in his — and their — mother tongue, and the first time he will visit three nations in a single journey.
In a news conference last week, the Vatican said that the theme of the trip is reconciliation and renewal and that the pope had made the conscious decision to visit nations at the “periphery” of Latin America’s power centers.
The visit, which is scheduled to run through Sunday, will take Francis to three of the four poorest countries in South America. (Missing from the itinerary is Guyana, in northeastern South America, which is the third-poorest.)
The pontiff will also be facing extreme temperature and elevation changes as he moves from sea-level to almost 12,000 feet in the Bolivian capital of La Paz.
In Quito, at 9,350 feet, the air is so thin that even hardy travelers sometimes find it difficult to breathe. Not only has Francis been living near sea level at the Vatican, but he had part of one lung removed in his youth.
Despite having his skullcap, or zucchetto, carried off in a gust of wind as he got off the Alitalia aircraft, the pontiff seemed no worse for wear, hugging children on the tarmac and waving from the motorcade.
On Monday, Francis will head to the port city of Guayaquil, where he will deliver his first major mass before returning to Quito in the afternoon for a reception with the president.
Consuelo Díaz, 55, waited more than five hours on a corner to get a view of the pope. When John Paul II visited in 1985, she said she could barely see him. This time, she was determined to get as close as possible.
“I know we won’t be able to touch him because the police won’t let us,” Díaz said, “but I have to see him.”
Bernadita Llerana was just seven during John Paul’s visit and she said she wasn’t sure when she would get to see another pope in the flesh.
“We’ve had to wait 30 years for a pope to return,” she said. “Who knows if I’ll be alive whenever the next visit happens.”