Quito: Pope Francis arrived in Ecuador to kick off his first South American trip in two years that will also take him to Bolivia and Paraguay and see him highlight the plight of the poor.
The 78-year-old, who hails from Argentina, landed at 2:43 pm yesterday at a blustery Mariscal Sucre international airport in Quito -- it was so windy his skullcap was blown off only seconds after he emerged from his plane.
It is the first visit by a pontiff to Ecuador in three decades, and thousands of excited people massed in the capital and lined the roadsides to greet him. He jetted in 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 skullcap, 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 hands of each of them, as a considerable security detail kept at a discreet distance. His 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. "I want to bear witness to the joy of the Gospel and bring God's tenderness and care," Francis, the first South American pope, said before leaving for the eight-day trip, during which he is to deliver no less than 22 speeches.
"Especially children in need, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, those who are victims of this throwaway culture." 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 today.