Pope Francis receives raucous welcome in South America

  • Faithful take pictures with their mobile phones as Pope Francis departs from the San Francisco Church aboard the Popemobile, in Quito, Ecuador, July 7, 2015. The pontiff met with representatives of civic organizations, entrepreneurs, indigenous communities and Catholic lay groups. 
  • An image of a cross held by a woman prior to a mass of Pope Francis at Bicentennial Park on July 7, 2015, in Quito, Ecuador. 
  • Priests take pictures as Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass at the Los Samanes park in Guayaquil, Ecuador, July 6, 2015. Pope Francis landed in Ecuador’s capital Quito on Sunday to begin a nine-day tour of South America that will also include visits to Bolivia and Paraguay. On his first visit as pontiff to Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Argentina-born pope is scheduled to conduct masses in both Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil before flying to Bolivia on Wednesday. 
  • Two girls light a candle in San Francisco square during the meeting held by Pope Francis with social organizations in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. 
  • Pope Francis waves from the popemobile upon arrival for an open-air mass at the Bicentennial Park in Quito, Ecuador, on July 7, 2015. The visit of the Argentine-born pontiff comes amid widespread unrest over the socialist policies of President Rafael Correa who is expected to attend the mass. 
  • An elderly woman holds a posy of orange and pink flowers as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis outside the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Presentation of El Quinche, in El Quinche, Ecuador, July 8, 2015. 
  • Pope Francis is seen on a big screen as he arrives at the Catholic University in Quito, Ecuador, July 7, 2015. 
  • Pope Francis is cheered by the faithful upon his arrival at the Saint Francis Church in Quito, Ecuador, July 7, 2015. Francis is making his first visit as pope to this Spanish-speaking neighborhood. He  is traveling to three South American nations, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. 
  • Children wait for Pope Francis at the Nursing Home of the Missionaries of Charity in Tumbaco, Ecuador, on July 8, 2015. 
  • Faithful await for the arrival of Pope Francis to a meeting with the clergy, religious, and seminarians at the Marian National Shrine of “El Quinche,” in the outskirts of Quito on July 8, 2015. 
  • Nuns embrace at Independence square, while they wait for the Pope’s arrival to the government palace in Quito, Ecuador, July 6, 2015. 
  • Nuns wait for the arrival of Pope Francis before a meeting with the clergy, religious, and seminarians at the Marian National Shrine of “El Quinche,” in the outskirts of Quito on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent’s poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. 
  • Residents look from their apartment as others watch from the rooftop, as Pope Francis arrives at the Catholic University in Quito, Ecuador, July 7, 2015. 
  • Commuters wait inside a bus during the rush hour in La Paz, Bolivia, July 7, 2015. Due to the altitude, Pope Francis will spend only a few hours in the capital city La Paz during his South American tour.

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QUITO, Ecuador — Latin America’s first pope returned to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time as pontiff Sunday, beginning a nine-day tour.

Pope Francis received a raucous welcome in Ecuador on the first leg of his pilgrimage, in which he is expected to highlight the plight of the poor, denounce inequality and reinforce his call to safeguard the environment.

Children in traditional dress greeted Francis at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport, the wind blowing off his skullcap and whipping his white cassock as he descended from the plane following a 13-hour flight from Rome. He personally greeted and kissed several indigenous youths waiting for him on the side of the red carpet.

He will not stop by his native Argentina, although up to a million of his countrymen are expected to cross into neighboring Paraguay to attend his open-air masses there.

And yet for Francis, this will be a homecoming in its own right. The pope, who has long claimed to want a “Poor Church for the Poor,” will travel to some of the continent’s most downtrodden areas, facing not only political but also physical challenges.

In Ecuador, the pope’s call for more responsible economic growth and environmental protection will be put to the test. It is one of the most biodiverse nations on earth, and at the same time it relies heavily on mining and oil, which account for 96 percent of its exports.

During his nine-day trip, he will reach out to indigenous communities — many of which still associate Catholicism with colonialism — visit inmates in Bolivia’s infamous Palmasola prison and tour Paraguay’s Banado Norte shantytown.

And yet, the biggest challenge the 78-year-old pope may face is neither religious nor political. During the pilgrimage, he will fly to five cities in eight days, from sea level to 13,000 feet, with drastic changes in climate and temperature. 

This article first appeared on NBCNews.com

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