LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) – Pope Francis arrived in Bolivia on Wednesday on the second leg of his South American tour and immediately insisted that the Catholic Church continue to play an important role in society amid efforts by the government of President Evo Morales to curb its influence.
Pope Francis received a hero’s welcome in Ecuador’s biggest city Monday as he celebrated the first public mass of his South American tour, telling hundreds of thousands of faithful their families are the bedrock of society but need to be supported better and strengthened. The Jesuit church, a gem of Spanish Baroque, is one of the oldest and most well-known in Ecuador.
In Ecuador, over a million people enjoyed his visit and enthusiastically crowded the streets he drove through on various occasions.
Quoting from and explaining some of the principles in his encyclical letter on the environment, “Laudato Si’“, the pope said God created the world and everything in it not “so he could see himself reflected in it”, but in order to share it.
In the heat of the dispute, Morales accused Cardinal Julio Terrazas, then head of the Bolivian bishop’s conference, of being aligned with the opposition and stripped him of his diplomatic passport. In that moment, the Pope said, “the Lord was experiencing in his own flesh the worst of this world, a world he nonetheless loved dearly”.
“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.
Across the park, flags from Ecuador and more than a half dozen other countries waved above the enormous sea of people, who were divided into quadrants that Francis looped around slowly on his popemobile to cheers of “Francisco!”
Morales is never one to hide his opinions: When he met in 2010 with Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, he gave him a letter suggesting the church abolish celibacy and allow women to be priests.
His words in Ecuador were a foretaste of his September trip to the United States, where most of the criticism of the encyclical has come.
Speaking before a group that included indigenous people of the Equatorial Amazon, he also renewed his call for special protection for the area because of its vital importance to the planet’s ecosystem.
“But history tells us that it only made headway once personal differences were set aside”, the Pope told the crowd gathered at Quito’s Bicentenario Park against the backdrop of the Andean mountains on his third day in Ecuador.
Protests have rocked the nation in recent weeks, but were put on hold for the pope’s visit.
“This is not about having the same tastes, the same concerns, the same gifts”, Pope Francis said.
In Bolivia, President Morales declared Wednesday a holiday in La Paz, and Thursday, in Santa Cruz, so that people can participate in all of the pope’s events.
Archbishop Edmundo Abastoflor of La Paz also says the welcoming ceremony may be moved inside the airport to avoid chilling the 78-year-old pope.
“It is precisely into this troubled world that Jesus sends us”, he said.
Nonetheless, the opposition demonstrations – some of which have turned violent – have continued, in spite of calls from Ecuadorean officials for a national debate on wealth distribution.
The Argentine-born pontiff was spending his last few hours at a home for the elderly in Ecuador’s highland capital Quito and a shrine just outside the city where he was to meet priests, nuns and seminarians.
What is notable, experts say, is how the pope has managed to sound social justice themes that overlap traditionally leftist leaders in South America who otherwise have been at odds with the church.