In an impassioned sermon with political overtones, Pope Francis on Tuesday called on this divided Andean nation to come together to help create a utopia where no one was excluded.
The 18-minute homily took place in front of hundreds of thousands of people in the sprawling Bicentenario Park, on the site of Quito’s old international airport.
Referring to the park’s name, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of Ecuador’s independence, the pontiff said that historical struggle was born “from the lack of liberty; from being repressed, looted and submitted — of being subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.”
The line drew enough applause that Francis had to pause. Nestled in the crowd with his wife was President Rafael Correa. Facing weeks of protests, the president had suggested that he would skip the mass in order to keep hecklers from ruining the occasion.
While Correa has called for a national dialogue to quell demonstrations, his critics say they’re being silenced. And they’ve accused him and his Alianza País party of amassing power in order to perpetuate their rule.
“The unity that Jesus asks us for is not uniformity, but rather a multifaceted and inviting harmony that is brought about by the immense richness of variety,” Francis said. He added that the image of Jesus during the Last Supper “makes us wary of all dictatorial or sectarian ideologies.”
The sermon was something of a Rorschach test, with people walking away with different messages.
María Luisa Jimenez, a 72-year-old retired school teacher, said Francis’ words about social justice underscore the administration’s own policies. And she said his message about unity was aimed at those who are opposed to Correa — a charismatic socialist who has been in office for eight years.
“He wants all Ecuadoreans to be united despite our political differences,” she said of the pope. “I hope that happens, but I don’t think the elite will ever agree to it,” she added, echoing an adjective that Correa often uses for the opposition.
For others, there were no political lessons in the sermon.
“It was just a message about peace and love for everyone,” said Nancy Baez, 39. “The mood was spectacular; it was so peaceful and harmonious.”
The much-awaited ceremony drew massive crowds from across the country and region. Many camped out overnight despite rain and occasional hail, singing songs that could be heard over swaths of the capital.
The ceremony also was a display of Ecuador’s ethnic diversity. Native Tsáchila, or Colorados, with their dyed-orange hair, shared the audience with bare-chested Kichwas adorned in beaded necklaces. Quiteños donned wide-brimmed Panama hats (which are from here despite their name).
That diversity was on the altar as well. One of the biblical scriptures was read in Kichwa — a close but distinct relative to Quechua — and Francis wore a white robe with gold stitching made by nuns in the southern city of Cuenca covered with a black-and-white shawl.
In the afternoon, speaking at the Catholic University in Quito, Francis returned to two of his principal themes: taking care of the earth and helping the poor.
Because man and nature are intertwined, the pope said, social ills could not be addressed without protecting the planet.
“Among the poorest, and most abandoned and abused in this world is our oppressed and devastated Earth,” he said.
He also challenged his listeners — and the media — to reorganize their priorities.
“A poor person who dies of hunger or cold isn’t news,” he said. “But if the stock market of a great capital falls two or three points it becomes a global scandal.”
On Tuesday evening, Francis was scheduled to meet with members of civil-society groups before taking a private tour of the Iglesia de la Compañia, a colonial-era Jesuit church that is renowned for its gold-leaf central nave.
Francis’ arrival marks the first papal visit to this country in 30 years and the nation has expressed its gratitude by swarming streets, packing plazas and filling parks in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Argentine pope.
Johana Fernández, 27, had pushed through a crush of people so that her 5-year-old daughter could see Francis at the presidential palace late Monday. The pope eventually stepped onto a balcony and waved to the crowd.
“It was something so beautiful,” she said through tears. “He didn’t say anything but I could feel him giving us his blessing.”
On Wednesday, Francis will continue his South American tour in Bolivia before heading to Paraguay. The Vatican said he chose the countries because they’re on the “periphery” of Latin America’s power centers. They also happen to be some of the poorest countries in the region.
“How beautiful it would be,” Francis said as he ended Tuesday’s ceremony, “if all of us could admire how much we care for each other.”