QUITO: Thousands of jubilant people lined the streets of Quito as Pope Francis began a grueling South American trip that will also take in Bolivia and Paraguay.
It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades and thousands of excited people massed in the capital and thronged the roadsides to greet him as he took his Popemobile into the city, waving and smiling to the delirious crowds.
Some threw confetti and danced as he cruised past, others waved the flag of Argentina, the pope’s home nation.
The 78-year-old pontiff had jetted in a short while earlier aboard an Alitalia passenger plane, in a sign of the austere simplicity he has sought to bring to his office.
Still smiling despite losing his skull cap just seconds after emerging from his plane and as the winds ruffled his cassock, he was met on the tarmac by a beaming Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa and the pair shared a warm embrace.
Indigenous children wearing traditional outfits lined the lengthy red carpet, while an orchestra played. Francis shook the children’s hands or kissed each of them, as a considerable security detail kept at a discreet distance.
The papal visit coincides with a time of political tension in Ecuador, with Correa facing growing calls to go in some of the biggest antigovernment demonstrations to shake the country in recent years.
Pope Francis, who regularly wades into political issues, urged Correa to promote “dialogue and participation without exclusions.”
Turning to the dominant theme of his eight-day visit, he added: “Progress and development must ensure a better future for all, paying special attention to our most vulnerable brothers and the most vulnerable minorities, which are the debt that Latin America still has.”
The pope’s last visit to South America was a triumphant trip to Brazil in 2013 that culminated with three million people gathering in Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana beach for a mass at the end of a Catholic youth festival.
Most of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics hail from Latin America, despite the onslaught from evangelical beliefs and practices in recent years.
During the trip, Francis is due to deliver no less than 22 speeches and catch seven flights covering a total of 24,000 kilometers (15,000 miles).
All three of the countries he is visiting are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality mostly afflicting indigenous populations.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, will give a Holy Mass to be broadcast in eight languages on Monday in the southwestern city of Guayaquil.
“I love the pope’s sermons. I am among those who admire Saint Francis of Assisi, and I love him because he is authentic,” said homemaker Maria Criolla, 44, speaking in front of a church in Quito.
Criollo, whose grandson bears the pope’s name, plans to sleep in the capital’s Bicentennial Park on Monday to make sure she misses nothing of a mass on Tuesday expected to draw three million faithful.
Correa will meet the pope again late Monday. Francis will also meet Bolivian leader Evo Morales and Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes.
Since he was elected pope in March 2013, Francis has become an outspoken advocate for the poor and on social and environmental issues.
Last month, he urged the world to act quickly to prevent “extraordinary” climate change from destroying the planet.
Francis also called for “solidarity and peaceful coexistence” in Colombia and Venezuela.
Bogota is seeking to end a decades-old leftist insurgency, while Caracas is struggling with political and economic upheaval.
It is his ninth trip abroad but only the second visit to Ecuador by a pope. John Paul II traveled to the country in 1985.
Then, about 94 percent of the population was considered Catholic, compared to 80 percent today in the country of 16 million.
The decrease has come as evangelical churches have attracted huge numbers of followers, many of whom are indigenous people disenchanted by a lack of attention from the Catholic hierarchy.