QUITO. “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.” With these words a visibly happy Pope greeted the Ecuadorian people and then went onto appeal for dialogue and reconciliation in the land, soon after arriving at Quito’s international airport on Sunday afternoon, July 5.
Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, welcomed him at a colorful ceremony at the airport, that was transmitted live on national TV. Quoting frequently from the pope’s encyclical on “care of our common home,” he hailed Francis as a champion of the poor to this country which he described as “a multicultural, multi-ethnic paradise on earth.” Calling him a “gigantic moral authority,” he praised him for working with determination to combat the injustice in the world and to correct a globalized economy that serves profit more than people.
In spite of the 13 hour flight from Rome, Francis, looking full of energy, responded by warmly thanking the president and this nation of 15.7 million people for “opening" their hearts to him.
“I begin my visit filled with excitement and hope for the days ahead,” he told them. He thanked the president for sharing his same line of thinking on many issues, and then zoned in on the challenges facing the country at this moment in history. He spoke against a background of social and political unrest because the president in recent times had proposed legislation that would have increased the inheritance tax. In actual fact Correa withdrew the legislation the week before last, but the protests continued on the eve of the papal visit.
Francis spelled out the challenges facing the country which involved “respecting differences, fostering dialogue and full participation, so that the growth in progress and development already registered will ensure a better future for everyone, with particular concern for the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.”
He is likely to expand on this in the coming days, but already his words reflected his distinct concern for the poor and excluded of this land, and for the overall development of the country. He knows that in spite of significant economic and social progress over the past decade thanks to revenues from petroleum (Ecuador has the third largest petroleum reserves in Latin America) that enabled the governments since 2005 to invest heavily in education and health care, and assist the poor and the indigenous people, there are still too many poor pope in this land which is the size of the state of Nevada. He knows too that 25 percent of Ecuadorians are indigenous people, and they are among the poorest of the poor, and in recent years have also suffered much from mining and petroleum exploration.
Ecuador gained independence from the Spanish colonizers in 1822, and since then the country has experienced many problems and no less than 80 governments, including two periods of military dictatorship in the 1960s and ‘70s. Now, however, it has a democratic presidential republic, and in 2005 it took a turn for the better with the election of a doctor, Alfredo Palacio, as president. He chose Rafael Correa, a U.S. educated economist as finance minister, and together they engaged in the social and economic transformation mentioned earlier. Correa went onto succeed him as president.
In his brief speech, Francis appealed for real dialogue in the country and suggested that the way ahead required “respecting differences, fostering dialogue and full participation.” He told his nationwide audience that the Gospel contained “the keys” to resolving those challenges. And he assured President Correa that in the efforts to meet those challenges, “you can always count on the commitment and the cooperation of the church.”
The former archbishop of Buenos Aires went onto recall that in the past he had come to Ecuador “on a number of occasions, for pastoral reasons” but this time, he said, “I have come as a witness of God’s mercy and of faith in Jesus Christ.”
87 percent of Ecuadorians are Catholic, and Francis recalled that “for centuries that faith has shaped the identity of this people and borne much good fruit.” He mentioned some of the “outstanding figures” that had “lived their faith with intensity and enthusiasm and by their works of mercy they contributed in a variety of ways to improving the Ecuadorian society of their day.” He recalled such well known saints of this land—Mariana de Jesus, Miguel Fibers and Narcisi de Jesus as well as Blessed Mercedes de Jesus Molina whom John Paul II, beatified in Guayaquil thirty years ago.
Then, in a particularly evocative part of his speech in which he sought to confirm them in their faith, Francis recalled that Ecuador “is the point closest to outer space,” and explained that this is why “the peak of Chimborazo is called the place ‘closest’ to the sun, the moon and the stars.” Chimborazo, an extinct volcanic mountain, is the highest mountain in the country and due to the earth’s equatorial bulge; its peak is the furthest terrestrial point from the center of the earth.
“We Christians identify Christ with the sun, and the moon with the Church, the community of the faithful,” the pope stated. He reminded them that “No one, save Jesus Christ, possesses his or her own light.” He prayed that his days in their country may help everyone to see more clearly “how close Christ is” because he is “the sun which dawns upon us from on high.”
He concluded his brief speech by telling those present and the millions watching him on TV, that “from this place, I wish to embrace all of Ecuador. From the peak of Chimborazo to the Pacific coast; from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands.”
Then praying for them, he said: “May you never lose the ability to thank God for what he has done and is doing for you, and may you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country.” He ended by praying that God may grant them “every grace and blessing.”
At the airport ceremony, after the playing of the Ecuadorian and Vatican national anthems and the speeches, Francis embraced the many children and young people, dressed in colorful costumes representing the different peoples of this land.
From there, he drove in his pope-mobile to Quito, the second highest capital city in the world (2850 meters) after La Paz in Bolivia. Tens of thousands of people lined the route and gave him a triumphant welcome, cheering and throwing flowers at his pope-mobile as he drove past and waved to them.
Already on the 13 hour flight from Rome to Quito, Francis looked happy and relaxed when he spoke briefly to the 75 reporters travelling with him and greeted each of them. His face then reflected his great joy at returning to the continent of his birth, but on the drive into Quito his face and eyes beamed with even greater joy and happiness, as he waved non-stop to the people and blessed children. The Ecuadorians responded with such emotion that the police struggled to contain their enthusiasm. But Francis appeared to enjoy every moment; he knew he had come home.