Hundreds of thousands of people greeted Pope Francis as he arrived on Monday at Samanes Park in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, for a special Mass. Many had camped out the night before, and standing out in 30-degree (86 degrees Fahrenheit) heat, waving flags and pictures of the Virgin Mary. Rosa Elena Lata, 82, traveled 16 hours from the country's south to see the Pope "because seeing him will be like seeing Jesus."
It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades.
In his homily, Francis highlighted families as being at the core of society, saying it "embodies a great social wealth that other institutions cannot substitute." He cautioned those gathered to watch more closely for signs of discontent within the family unit. "How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives?" he said. "How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love?" Since becoming pope Francis has frequently mentioned families in his sermons, including so-called "non-traditional" families such as parents who are divorced or homosexual.
The pope also expressed his hope that an upcoming meeting of bishops on family life would end better than the previous one, which finished with a bitter divide between liberals and conservatives. "I ask you to pray fervently for this intervention, so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure, scandalous or threatening, and turn it ... into a miracle," he said. Francis will hold another service on Tuesday in Bicentennial Park in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.
On his arrival in Guayaquil earlier in the day, the pope was presented with the keys to the city by mayor Jaime Nebot. The pontiff also allowed several altar boys to take selfie photographs with him, before visiting the Shrine of the Divine Mercy on Guayaquil's outskirts, where he offered blessings to around 2,000 people, including a group with disabilities. He joked that "I won't charge you anything, but please pray for me," then prayed alone at the shrine for a few minutes.
After the mass the pontiff was scheduled to have lunch with fellow Jesuits, before journeying back to Quito where he landed on Sunday, to meet with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and visit the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stated his top issues on this trip will be highlighting the plight of the needy and protecting the environment, a message particularly important for Ecuador, which is highly dependent on oil. The nation's leader may be hard to convince though, with Rafael Correa having angered activists by giving the go ahead to drilling and mining projects in the Amazon rainforest.
Organizers have called for a pause in ongoing protests over tax changes and "state authoritarianism" during the pope's visit. The pontiff has encouraged Correa to open himself up to dialogue on the subject.
Francis will next travel to Bolivia and Paraguay before returning the Vatican.
an/jr (Reuters, AFP, AP)