US & World

Pope Francis kicks off South America tour in Ecuador

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives to celebrate a Mass in  in Samanes Park, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, July 6, 2015. Latin America's first pope arrived in this port city on Monday for the first big event of a three-nation tour where he's set compassion for the weak and respect for the environment as central themes. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives to celebrate a Mass in in Samanes Park, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, July 6, 2015. Latin America's first pope arrived in this port city on Monday for the first big event of a three-nation tour where he's set compassion for the weak and respect for the environment as central themes. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Fernando Vergara/AP

Hundreds of thousands of people filled a park in Ecuador's main port city Monday for Pope Francis' first big event of his three-nation South American tour, hoping for a glimpse of Latin America's first pope returning to his home soil for a Mass dedicated to the family.

Many pilgrims spent the night outdoors, and some walked for miles to reach the park on Guayaquil's northern outskirts where the crowd sang hymns and sought pockets of shade to keep cool amid the scorching sun and high humidity. Firefighters sprayed them with water hoses to provide relief.

"I'm tired. I'm hungry, I haven't slept but I'm also full of emotion and joy in my heart," said Vicente Huilcatoma, a 47-year-old retired police officer who walked 25 miles (40 kilometers) to reach Samanes Park.

The Vatican had originally estimated more than 1 million people would turn out for the Mass, and government organizers put the crowd at above 1 million people in the hour before the Mass began. But Gabriel Almeida, the government spokesman at the scene, rolled back the estimate to several hundred thousands after officials viewed aerial images of the area.

Across the park, Ecuadoran national flags and papal banners waved above the enormous sea of people, who were divided into quadrants that Francis looped around slowly on his popemobile to cheers of "Francisco! Francisco!"

On his arrival in Guayaquil, the pontiff allowed several acolytes on the tarmac to take selfies with him. He then headed to the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, where 2,000 invitees gathered including child cancer patients, residents of homes for the elderly abandoned by their families and some of Guayaquil's poorest people.

A child reached out to touch Francis as he arrived at the shrine and nearly poked him in the eye. The pope walked away grinning.

He told those gathered that he would pray for them "and I won't charge you a thing. All I ask, please, is that you pray for me."

The crowd in Los Samanes park was festive, with young and old overjoyed at seeing the first pope in their lives.

"I'll ask the pope to intercede so that God gives me my health," said 90-year-old Guillermina Aveiga Dávila, who arrived at dawn from the coastal city of Chone, some 300 kilometers away. "I want to reach 100."

After the open-air Mass, a private lunch was planned with a group of Jesuits.

A highlight was to be a reunion with the Rev. Francisco Cortes, a priest affectionately known as "Padre Paquito," to whom the Argentina-born pope, then the Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, entrusted his seminarians on study trips to Ecuador years ago.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Cortes couldn't fathom that Bergoglio remembered him, much less made a point of coming to have lunch.

"I don't know what to ask him," the soon-to-be 91-year-old Cortes said. "He said he wanted to see me and I'm amazed that he's coming. For the first time, I have known a pope.

The "pope of the poor" returned to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time as pontiff Sunday, stressing the importance of protecting the needy and the environment from exploitation and — in a nation whose president was booed as his vehicle followed the papal motorcade Sunday — to foster dialogue among all sectors of society.

Francis' only other trip back to Latin America since being elected pope was in 2013, when he visited Brazil, where Portuguese is the main language. His other stops on this trip include Bolivia and Paraguay, South America's two poorest countries.

Francis' environmental message — from a pope who last month issued a treatise staking the Earth's preservation as a core mission for humanity — is particularly relevant for Ecuador, a Pacific nation that is home to one of the world's most species-diverse ecosystems but is also an OPEC country heavily dependent on oil. High crude prices allowed Correa to lift 1.3 million people out of poverty in his eight years in office.

But now that prices have fallen, the generous social safety net Correa has woven is threatened. He's had to cut government spending and been buffeted for nearly a month by the most serious anti-government street protests of his tenure.

Along Francis' motorcade route, the crowds alternated chants of adulation for the pontiff with jeers of "Correa out!" when the president's entourage followed.

Correa also has angered environmentalists and the nation's main indigenous group, CONAIE, by moving forward with oil drilling and mining projects in pristine Amazon forests.

Associated Press writers Jacobo Garcia and Frank Bajak contributed to this report.