Pope Francis urged a crowd of more than 1 million people Tuesday to channel the same urgency that brought Latin America its independence from Spain into spreading the faith on a continent where Catholicism is losing souls to evangelical movements.
Francis used his final Mass in Ecuador to appeal for the missionary church that he long has championed. He issued the call from Quito's Bicentennial Park — an apt location given that Ecuador was where the first cries of independence against Spanish rule arose in Latin America in 1809.
Francis told the gathering, estimated by the Interior Ministry to be more than 1 million, that in a world divided by wars, violence and individualism, Catholics should be "builders of unity," bringing together hopes and ideals of their people.
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"There was no shortage of conviction or strength in that cry for freedom which arose a little more than 200 years ago," he said. "But history tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside."
He urged Latin Americans to channel that same purpose into spreading the faith. Latin America counts 40 percent of the world's Catholics, but the church is losing out to Protestant evangelical ministries that have focused on the continent's poorest communities with real-life guidance on employment and education.
While the drop-off in Spanish-speaking South America hasn't been as sharp as it has been in Brazil, it is notable: Some 95 percent of Ecuador's population was Catholic in 1970; today, the figure is down to 79 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a bid to counter the trend and return the Catholic Church to its evangelizing origins, Francis has called for the church to return to being a missionary church that looks out particularly for society's poorest and most marginalized. It's a message he crafted for the entire Latin American church when he played a leading role in a 2007 conference of bishops in Aparecida, Brazil.
"Evangelization doesn't consist in proselytizing, but in attracting by our witness to those who are far off, in humbly drawing near to those who feel distant from God and the church, those who are fearful or indifferent," Francis told the crowd. "Proselytism is a caricature of evangelization."
The Mass featured readings in Quichua, the native language mostly spoken in Ecuador, and Ecuadorean vestments for the pope.
It kicked off a final full day in Ecuador that began with meetings with bishops and included a visit to Quito's Catholic University for a session with students and professors that likely would show the unpredictable pope at his best: Francis often goes off-script when he engages with young people, all the more so in his native tongue. Francis then planned to go to a Quito church for an encounter with business leaders, people involved in the arts and indigenous groups.
Both encounters were expected to highlight an issue close to the pope's heart — care for the planet — which he has only touched on fleetingly since he began his weeklong, three-country South American tour that will take him to Bolivia on Wednesday, and Paraguay later in the week.
Francis arrived at Quito's Bicentennial Park to cheers from the hundreds of thousands of people who camped out overnight for a good spot. They were rewarded with a pre-dawn deluge that sent some 20 people to paramedics with hypothermia, said city operations director Cristian Rivera. But the sun broke out as Francis arrived in his popemobile to do a tour of the grounds, with fans tossing confetti on him as he zoomed by.
"The joy at seeing the pope gives us the warmth we need," said Abel Gualoto, a 59-year-old seafood vendor as he rubbed his cold hands together to try to stay warm.
The 78-year-old pontiff, who has only one full lung following an infection he suffered as a young man, appears to be holding up well at the start of his visit despite the 2,800-meter (nearly 9,200-foot) altitude of Quito and a day spent in the scorching sun of coastal Guayaquil on Monday. He had so much energy he slipped out again for a second night to greet well-wishers who gathered outside the Vatican ambassador's residence where he stayed.
"It's always surprising what the pope can do at his age," said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He noted that several people in the Vatican entourage awoke Monday with headaches due to altitude sickness, but not the pope.
"He has said it's God's way of helping him do his ministry, his service," Lombardi said.
Tuesday was expected to end with a visit to the Church of the Society of Jesus, known locally as Iglesia de la Compania. The Jesuit church, a gem of Spanish Baroque, is one of the oldest and most well-known in Ecuador. It houses a painting of the Virgin Mary that was said to shed tears in 1906.