As part of moves to highlight the plight of the poor on his home continent, 78-year-old Pope Francis starts his first South American trip in two years on Sunday, for an eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Jesuit pontiff, the first Pope from his “beloved South America,” is due to land in Ecuador’s capital Quito at 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) and will give a Holy Mass in eight languages early Monday.
Francis’s last visit to South America was described as a triumphant trip to Brazil that culminated with some three million people gathering in Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana Beach for a mass at the end of a Catholic youth festival.
The Catholic Church has about 1.2 billion followers globally, and Latin America represents the biggest fraction of that population.
But the region has seen declining numbers as more people turn to Protestant churches.
The Pope said before leaving for South America that he wants to bear witness to the joy of the Gospel and bring God’s tenderness and care.
The Pope said his “mission was targeted at the down-trodden, especially children in need, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, those who are victims of this throwaway culture.”
The papal visit coincides with a time of political tension in Ecuador.
Embattled President Rafael Correa, an avowed admirer of Francis who describes himself as a “humanist Catholic of the left,” has faced weeks of protests demanding his ouster over his policies, including an initiative to increase inheritance taxes.
In his weekly address, Correa said, “We are filled with joy at the coming of Pope Francis, the first Latin American Pope.
“How the Church is changing! What a strong message you are bringing.”
Correa will meet with the Pope late Monday.
By Patrick Aigbokhan