By Yury Garcia
Camped on streets with sleeping bags and stocked with food supplies, thousands of excited Ecuadoreans congregated in the coastal city of Guayaquil on Monday for Pope Francis’ first mass of his “homecoming” tour of South America.
On the first full day of his three-nation trip, the Argentine-born pontiff was heading south from Quito to Ecuador’s second city, a steamy port sometimes referred to as the world’s “banana capital,” given its bustling fruit trade.
“It’s going to be a very special day which I’ll share with those I love,” said Silvia Flores, a 43-year-old doctor waiting on the streets. “We’re all brothers in Christ.”
After the mass, Francis was due to go to a local Jesuit-run school to visit an old friend he has not seen in three decades, the cigar-smoking Rev. Francisco Cortes.
When he was a seminary director in Argentina, Francis, then Father Jorge Bergoglio, would send seminarians to the school to study theology with Cortes, now a diminutive 91-year-old Spaniard affectionately known as “Father Paquito.”
The pope’s visit to Guayaquil takes on special significance for Ecuador, and its leftist President Rafael Correa, given it has been the epicenter of anti-government protests for weeks.
Thousands have been taking to the streets in Guayaquil and elsewhere to protest tax changes and alleged state authoritarianism. Correa says the reforms will only affect the super-wealthy and accuses his foes of seeking a coup d’etat.
Protest leaders have called a moratorium during the pope’s visit, and Francis used his arrival speech on Sunday to call for dialogue and respect for differences.
“We’re excited about this visit despite the conflict that Ecuador is going through right now,” said Juan Campuzano, a 45-year-old secondary school teacher in Guayaquil.
“Hopefully everything will work out in an orderly manner and this visit will be productive in restoring faith and love.”
As the pope rode into the capital Quito from the airport on Sunday afternoon, some onlookers booed and jeered government officials behind his motorcade.
On Monday, young people with guitars and drums serenaded the pope as he left the Papal Nunciature’s residence in Quito en route to the airport outside the city. Hundreds applauded as he smiled and blessed well-wishers.
The colonial-era city of Guayaquil is also the departure point for the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin began to formulate his ideas on evolution.
After Ecuador, the pope heads to Bolivia and Paraguay on a tour encompassing three of the region’s poorest and smallest countries.
The pope visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 but that was to substitute for predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation. So because he chose the three nations himself, aides call this the real “homecoming” to his native continent.