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Hundreds of thousands gather for pope Mass in South America

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Pope Francis, center, exits Mass at the Samanes Park in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — 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.

In his homily, 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?”

Firefighters sprayed water from hoses on the crowd to provide relief from a searing sun and high humidity that made the 86 degree Fahrenheit temperature in the Pacific port city of Guayaquil feel at least 10 degrees hotter.

Many pilgrims had spent the night outdoors, and some walked for miles to reach the park on Guayaquil’s northern outskirts to catch a glimpse of history’s first Latin American pope celebrating Mass on his home turf. 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 (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 service began. But Gabriel Almeida, the government spokesman at the scene, rolled back the estimate to several hundred thousand after officials viewed aerial images of the area.

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! Francisco!”

The pope’s homily brought Janeth Valencia Bersosa to tears. The primary school teacher came to the Mass with her older sister Pilar from Cuenca, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) 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 entire church to study ways to provide better pastoral care for Catholic families facing difficulties today, including people who are divorced, gays and families in “nontraditional” situations.

A preliminary meeting of bishops on these issues ended last year in bitter divisions between liberals and conservatives, 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.

In his homily Monday, Francis said he hoped the second meeting of bishops on family life, scheduled for October, would come up with “concrete solutions to the many difficult and significant challenges facing families in our time.”

“I ask you to pray fervently for this intention, so that Christ can take even what might seem to us impure, scandalous or threatening, and turn it … into a miracle.”

“Families today need miracles!” he added.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis wasn’t 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 headed to the Shrine of the Divine Mercy, where 2,000 invitees gathered, including young cancer patients, residents of homes for the elderly abandoned by their families and some of Guayaquil’s poorest people.

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.”

After the open-air Mass, Francis had lunch with a group of Jesuits at a nearby high school.

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.”

Later in the day, Francis was to pay a courtesy visit to President Rafael Correa and pray at Quito’s main cathedral. Tuesday brings another big public Mass, this time in Quito, as well as a meeting with the country’s bishops, a speech at Ecuador’s Catholic University and an evening gathering with civil society groups, including indigenous leaders.

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