Laughing as his cap flew off in the Andean highland wind, Pope Francis flew into Ecuador on Sunday to start a “homecoming” tour of South America, where he will champion the rights of the poor and the planet.
His visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay — three of the region’s poorest and smallest countries — is the pope’s first abroad since his landmark encyclical urging an end to the degradation of the global environment by humans, Reuters reported.
“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,” the Argentine-born pontiff said in a speech on the runway after his 13-hour flight from Rome.
When he emerged from the plane, a breeze whipped off his white zucchetto cap and swirled his robes, but the affable 78-year-old took it in his stride, smiling and laughing as he walked down the steps to an embrace from President Rafael Correa.
He was then greeted by a group of people in indigenous clothing. One, of them, Elizabeth Maldonado, 16, said afterward she had never dreamed she would hug the pope.
“It was something so beautiful, marvellous, a positive energy, a huge blessing for us,” the report quoted her as saying.
Tens of thousands lined the streets as Francis’ motorcade drove into Quito, some pushing through a police line.
Well-wishers threw gifts at the popemobile, including two live white doves.
The pope visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013, but that was as a substitute for his predecessor, after Benedict suddenly resigned.
Because Francis chose the three countries on this tour himself, Vatican aides say this is his real “homecoming” to his native continent.
Quito, a highland capital mixing colonial cobbled streets with modern high-rises, was plastered with posters and billboards welcoming Francis.
A million extra people are expected in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil for masses.
“He’s a person who transmits love and peace for all humanity,” Andrea Ramirez, 25, a nun who took an eight-hour bus from Loja in the country’s south to Quito, was quoted as saying.
“He’ll teach Ecuadoreans that Christ lives and is present here, despite all the conflicts and social problems. He’ll bring peace and love to Ecuador.”
Boasting some of the world’s most extraordinary habitats — from the Amazon jungle to the Galapagos islands, yet heavily reliant on oil and mining — Ecuador in many ways illustrates the issues at the heart of the pope’s recent exhortations on the environment.
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