Pope Francis returns with joy to Latin America this Sunday, July 5, and is expected to be given a rapturous welcome by millions of people during his seven-day visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
On the eve of his departure, he went to the Basilica of St Mary Major’s in Rome to pray before the revered image of Our Lady and entrust his visit to her. He placed a bouquet of flowers on the altar composed of the colors of the flags of the three countries he will visit, and then prayed for 20 minutes. Last Monday, he asked the faithful to accompany him with their prayers.
It is his second visit back to the continent of his birth since his election as pope on 13 March 2013. He travelled to Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013, but that trip had already been planned under Benedict XVI and he simply respected the commitment. This time, however, Francis has chosen the countries to visit; ones that are not ranked among the richest or most politically powerful of this continent where more than 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live; they are in fact among the poorest countries in South America, and are part of the “peripheries” of the world that Francis has been giving so much attention to ever since he became pope.
He has been to Paraguay twice as a Jesuit leader, has visited Ecuador several times, and it seems he has been to Bolivia too. He is aware that Catholics count for more than 84 percent of the population in all three countries, and that popular religion flourishes in these lands.
Expectations are running high ahead of his arrival, according to media reports from those countries. Church leaders there hope he will not only consolidate the faith of their people, but also inject new life and energy and inspire them to be a missionary people. Political leaders too hope he can give them a boost, especially in Ecuador where the President has been the target of political protests ahead of his visit because of proposed legislation that touches the economy. And the ordinary people too have high hopes that the first Latin American pope will bring blessings and prosperity to their families and their countries, and in some way increase the momentum for greater social justice and the overcoming of inequality and unemployment.
Francis left Argentina at the end of February 2013 as archbishop of Buenos Aires, but now he returns as the leading moral authority in the world, and a powerful advocate for the poor, the oppressed and the excluded. Throughout this continent people know that he played a crucial role in brokering the accord between the USA and Cuba, and they applaud him for this. Many too know that he recently published an encyclical “on the care of our common home” – Laudato Si. That text contains much that is of the vital importance for the lives and the future of people in all three countries that he is visiting, and indeed for all the inhabitants of Latin America. It remains to be seen what the Argentine pope will say on the core issues of that encyclical during this visit.
Although he has stated publicly that he does not like travelling much, this is in fact his ninth foreign trip since he became Pope and it looks as it if will be the most grueling one so far. He will fly roughly 15,000 miles on this journey, and greet people at extraordinarily high altitudes (more than 13,000 feet above sea level at El Alto airport, Bolivia - the highest airport in the world, and 11,800 at La Paz, the country’s capital city) and at some very low ones too – 13 feet above sea level at Guayaquil, the major sea-port of Ecuador. He will also have to endure changing temperatures as he travels from one place to another.
The tireless pope will spend two full days in each country, and visit not only the capital cities –Quito, La Paz and Asuncion, but also another city in each republic. He will pay courtesy calls to the Presidents of these three former Spanish colonies, which after gaining their independence in the 19th century, went onto suffer for many years under military dictatorships in the second-half of the 20thcentury, but they are all now democratic Presidential Republics under civilian rule.
During his visit, Francis will have informal meetings with the bishops of all three countries, and will meet not only the clergy, women and men religious, as well as seminarians, but also “the builders of society” and the ordinary people – many of them very poor, including representatives of the different indigenous peoples the original inhabitants of this land. And the first Jesuit pope will also make some contact with the inspiring past history and present activities of the Jesuits in these lands.
The first Latin American pope in the Church’s history is known worldwide for the ‘jo y’ with which he communicates the message of Jesus. “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) is the title of the programmatic document of his pontificate. It comes as no surprise then that the word “Joy” - “Alegria’’ in Spanish, is the common thread in the logos for his visit to all three countries. The logo for Ecuador says: “Evangelize with joy”. The one for Bolivia reads: “With Francis, let us announce the joy of the Gospel. Peace and Reconciliation”, while the logo for Paraguay states simply: “Pope Francis: Messenger of Joy and of Peace”.
One can certainly expect then that Pope Francis will communicate joy and hope in the 21 talks that he will deliver to different groups on this trip, and in the five open-air masses that he will celebrate before large crowds: two in Ecuador - at Guayaguil and Quito; one in Bolivia at Santa Cruz; and two in Paraguay - at the famous Marian shrine of Caacupé and at the military airbase of Nu Guazu in Asuncion, where at least 1.5 million people will pray with him, including hundreds of thousands from his homeland – Argentina.
On this trip too, Francis will reach out to various groups of people that often tend to be excluded or overlooked: the elderly, children with serious health problems, prisoners, young people and members of the indigenous communities who were the first inhabitants of these lands. Importantly too, he will participate in the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz. The first such meeting was held in the Vatican in 2014.
A number of Vatican officials are accompanying Pope Francis on this trip, including the two highest ranking officials in the Roman Curia - Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, and Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the ‘Substitute’ (to the Secretariat of State), and the Uruguayan-born Dr. Guzman Carriquiry, the highest ranking lay man in the Vatican. Members of the Vatican security and the Pope’s doctors will also be on the plane, together with 75 reporters, TV and cameramen, from all over the world, including America magazine’s correspondent.