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GUAYAQUIL — Pope Francis said Mass for more than half a million Ecuadoreans on Monday and hinted he wanted a major Vatican gathering this year to find ways to reach out to Catholics who feel excluded by the Church.
On the first full day of a three-nation "homecoming" trip to South America, the Argentine-born pontiff was in Ecuador's second city Guayaquil, a steamy port sometimes referred to as the world's "banana capital," given its bustling fruit trade.
In line with his simple style, he rode into the city in a small silver Fiat marked for the occasion with Vatican City number plates - "SCV 1" — standing for Stato della Citta del Vaticano or State of Vatican City. Tens of thousands of people lined the route from the airport, at times rushing police to touch the car and throw flower petals before it.
His eyes often squinting in the sun, Francis switched to an open jeep when he reached the sprawling Mass site and rode though the crowd, which authorities estimated at more than 650,000 people.
"I've come to this spiritual encounter to ask the pope to heal me because I have cancer," said Franklin Borbor, 48, who despite his illness traveled more than five hours to find his place in the park.
The 78-year-old pope weaved his homily around the theme of the family, which will be the subject of a month-long synod, or gathering of bishops, at the Vatican in October. The meeting is expected to discuss ways to reach out to Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church. Under current Church rules, they are prohibited from receiving communion unless they abstain from sexual relations.
The gathering is also due to discuss how they Church should reach out to homosexual Catholics.
In his homily, Francis also called for a rekindling of family values and solidarity with the elderly, the abandoned and the unemployed. "How many of our adolescents and young people sense that (love and happiness) are no longer found in their homes? How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives? How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love?" he said.
After the mass, Francis was due to go to a Jesuit-run school to visit an old friend he has not seen in three decades, the cigar-smoking Rev. Francisco Cortes.
The pope's visit to Guayaquil took on extra significance for Ecuador, and its leftist President Rafael Correa, given it has been the epicenter of anti-government protests for weeks. Francis was to hold talks with Correa later on Monday.
After Ecuador, the pope heads to Bolivia and Paraguay on a tour encompassing three of the region's poorest and smallest countries. The pope visited Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 but that was to substitute for predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation.