By Girish Gupta and Philip Pullella
Pope Francis flies to Bolivia on Wednesday after drawing about 1.5 million people to Masses in Ecuador on the first leg of a “homecoming” tour, where he urged the world to take better care of the environment and the poor.
The Argentine-born pontiff was spending his last few hours at a home for the elderly in Ecuador’s highland capital Quito and a shrine just outside the city where he was to meet priests, nuns and seminarians.
He was then due to fly to high-altitude La Paz, in Bolivia, on Wednesday afternoon. Oxygen tanks are kept at the airport for arriving passengers who may struggle with the thin air.
That will focus attention on the 78-year-old pope’s health as he had part of one lung removed when he was younger after an infection that almost took his life.
Outside La Paz, Francis will stop at the spot where the body of Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps was found in 1980. The priest, who was a strong supporter of the rights of miners, was tortured and murdered by paramilitaries.
Francis will meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales, a prominent indigenous member of the bloc of socialist Latin American leaders who has won widespread support with folksy charm and prudent spending from a natural gas bonanza to cut poverty.
On Wednesday evening, the pope flies to Santa Cruz in western Bolivia. There, he will say a Mass on Thursday and the next day visit the notoriously violent Palmasola prison.
“OPENED OUR HEARTS”
In Ecuador, the pope held two Masses, both attended by hundreds of thousands of people, in Quito and the steamy coastal city of Guayaquil.
He met with President Rafael Correa, who has faced anti-government protests in recent weeks though leaders of the demonstrations called a moratorium during the pope’s visit as a sign of respect to the pontiff.
“The pope has opened our hearts with his messages, helping us to move forward, especially important in a country where we lack faith, unity and understanding,” said Victoria Zambrano, a 38-year-old doctor who traveled across the country to attend Tuesday’s Mass in Quito.
Ecuador highlights, possibly more than any other country in the world, the inherent difficulties within the pope’s recent environmental encyclical.
The country earns around one-half of its foreign income from oil, yet is also one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, with more endangered species than anywhere else.
A large amount of the oil that the socialist government hopes will help feed the poor, though, is locked up under rainforest land.
In his final speech in Quito on Tuesday, the pope focused on this conundrum.
“The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits,” he said.
“We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!”
During a Mass in Quito, the pope celebrated the region’s 200 years of independence from European powers and urged unity.
Yet there are some on the continent who are not impressed with the Catholic Church and accuse it of holding back women’s and gay rights, and being too close to political leaders.