Pope Francis Brings Focus on Poor to South America

Pope Francis arrived in Ecuador Sunday, starting a nine-day visit to South America in which he’s expected to focus on the poor and challenge policies on oil drilling that damage the environment.

The first Latin American pope, who was elected in March 2013 and called for “a poor Church for the poor,” will visit three of the region’s least developed countries -- Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.

“In the words of the gospel, we can find the keys that will permit us to face current challenges, appreciate differences, and promote dialogue and participation without exclusions,” Francis said in seven minutes of remarks on a windswept tarmac after landing in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

Everyone “should put special attention on the most fragile of our children, on the most vulnerable minorities, who are the debt that all of Latin America still has,” Francis said.

Thousands waved and cheered as the Argentine pontiff’s motorcade drove away from the airport, after Francis embraced dozens of young people.

During the visit, Francis, 78, will meet prisoners, slum-dwellers and grass-roots groups representing indigenous peoples and landless peasants. He’s scheduled to deliver 13 speeches and six homilies to crowds that could run into the hundreds of thousands. The populations of all three countries on the itinerary are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

‘Throw-Away Culture’

Francis’ message is intended for God’s “children most in need, to the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, to those who are victims of this throw-away culture,” he said in a statement on the eve of the trip

On his second visit to the region as pope, following a 2013 trip to Brazil, Francis is likely to repeat the themes of his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praised Be) on the environment, a letter to bishops in which he criticized political and business leaders for the impact of profit-motivated development on the environment.

Francis may speak about resource depletion, global poverty and the impact of the free-market economy on climate change, all of which featured in the encyclical.

Groups Angered

Ecuador President Rafael Correa, a former Catholic missionary, has angered indigenous and environmental groups by pushing to open his country’s Amazon rainforest to increased oil drilling and mining exploration.

A self-described socialist revolutionary, Correa invoked Francis’ call for greater equality in June when he proposed to raise taxes on inheritances and real-estate profits. Nationwide protests forced him to temporarily retract the proposals to avoid violence ahead of pope’s visit.

In a 12-minute speech Sunday following the pope’s arrival, Correa invoked Francis’ themes to criticize global capitalism and what he said was the double standard of developed countries’ injustice and “ecological debt” to poor nations.

Francis thanked Correa for his words but said the Ecuadorean quoted him “too much.”

High Altitude

Francis, who suffers from sciatica and had part of a lung removed in his youth, will travel to Bolivia on Wednesday, where he will spend just under four hours in the capital La Paz, about 3,650 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level. While there, he will meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is also boosting oil and gas drilling in his nation.

Francis may follow an ancient Andean tradition to drink tea brewed with coca leaves. Locals, and especially the poor, chew coca leaves, in part, to fend off altitude sickness. Asked whether Francis would resort to coca leaves, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters: “The pope will do what he thinks is best.” Francis “is happy to follow” local traditions on his trips, said Lombardi.