'The family today needs a miracle'
Pope Francis has put the family centre-stage on his trip to South America
POPE Francis received a hero's welcome in Ecuador's biggest city as he celebrated the first Mass of his South American tour, telling hundreds of thousands of faithful their families are the bedrock of society.
In his homily on Monday, Francis praised families as the nucleus of society, calling them "the nearest hospital, the first school for the young, the best home for the elderly".
He said miracles are performed every day inside a family out of love, but sometimes the love and happiness run out.
"How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives?" he asked.
"How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love?"
The Pope said that "the family constitutes the best 'social capital'".
"It cannot be replaced by other institutions. It needs to be helped and strengthened, lest we lose our proper sense of the services which society as a whole provides," he said.
"Those services which society offers to its citizens are not a type of alms, but rather a genuine 'social debt' with respect to the institution of the family, which is foundational and which contributes to the common good."
Firefighters sprayed water from hoses on the crowd to provide relief from a searing sun and high humidity that made the 30C temperature in the Pacific port city of Guayaquil feel hotter.
Many pilgrims had spent Sunday night outdoors, and some walked for miles to reach the park on Guayaquil's northern outskirts to catch a glimpse of the first Latin American Pope celebrating Mass on his home continent. They said it was well worth the discomfort.
"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 former police officer who walked 25 miles to reach Samanes Park.
Across the park, flags from Ecuador and other countries waved above the enormous sea of people - estimates varied from 550,000 to more than a million - who were divided into quadrants that Francis looped around slowly on his Popemobile to cheers of "Francisco, Francisco".
The Pope's homily brought primary school teacher Janeth Valencia Bersosa to tears. She came to the Mass with her older sister Pilar from Cuenca, about 125 miles away, spending the night in the park and then baking under the heat of the noontime Mass. She said it was worth it.
"Francis has given us back hope in our families, in those we love the most, the nucleus of society," she said. "I wept at each phrase."
Francis has dedicated the first two years of his pontificate to family issues, giving weekly catechism lessons on different aspects of family life and inviting the Church to study ways to provide better pastoral care for Catholic families facing difficulties today, including people who are divorced, gays and families in 'non-traditional' situations.
A meeting of bishops on these issues ended last year with some division, particularly over ministering to gays and to Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church.
Church teaching holds that Catholics who enter into a second marriage without having the first one annulled cannot receive Communion.
Francis said that he hoped the synod on the family, scheduled for later this year, would "consider concrete solutions and help to the many difficult and significant challenges facing families today".
"I ask you to pray fervently for this intention, so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure and turn it into a miracle. The family today needs this miracle."
The Pope's spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, said Francis was not referring to the gay or divorce issue specifically but was making a more general reference that he hoped the bishops would "help the Church chart this path of leaving a situation of sin to one of grace".
Upon his arrival in Guayaquil, the pontiff allowed several acolytes on the tarmac to take selfies with him.
He then went to the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, where 2,000 people, including young cancer patients, residents of homes for the elderly abandoned by their families and some of Guayaquil's poorest people were gathered.
He told them that he would pray for them "and I won't charge you a thing. All I ask, please, is that you pray for me".
A highlight of the Ecuador trip has been Francis's reunion with Fr Francisco Cortes, a priest affectionately known as 'Padre Paquito', to whom the Jesuit Pope, then Fr Jorge Mario Bergoglio, entrusted his seminarians on study trips to Ecuador years ago.
Fr Cortes, who is almost 91 years old, has said he could not fathom how Pope Francis had remembered him, much less made a point of coming to have lunch: "I'm really just a Mr Nobody."
After returning to the capital of Quito, Francis paid a courtesy visit to President Rafael Correa in the presidential palace. He was to later pray at the main cathedral.
On Tuesday, Francis celebrated another large public Mass, this time in Quito, and met the country's bishops.
Torrential rain drenched those queuing for Mass. Angelica Naranjo (71) said: "This isn't a sacrifice. It's a demonstration of faith."
Yesterday, the Pope travelled to Bolivia for the next stage of his South America visit, where he has apparently requested to chew coca leaves; coca is the raw ingredient of cocaine but is also used in the Andes as a remedy for altitude sickness.
From Bolivia, he travels to Paraguay tomorrow and is due to return to Rome on Sunday.