Pope Francis Focuses on Family in Ecuador Mass

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Standing above a huge dirt field engulfed by hundreds of thousands of followers, Pope Francis on Monday used the first full day of his Latin American trip to ruminate on the anguish and joy of family life, alluding to the broader debate among many Catholic prelates about whether church teachings should be changed regarding gay people and the divorced.

Francis has arrived in Latin America as a wildly popular returning son, a source of pride as the first pontiff from a continent where for decades he helped shape the Roman Catholic Church. He came with an extensive agenda and is expected to raise concerns about environmental destruction, the rights of indigenous people and the church’s legacy in the region.

But he began on Monday with family, a theme central to Catholic life, if also now contested in the politics of the church.

“In the heart of the family, no one is rejected,” Francis said. “Everyone is worth the same.”

Parsing Francis’s speeches can be tricky work, as he deliberately resists being pigeonholed. But he is organizing a major October meeting, or synod, at the Vatican in which church leaders are expected to debate whether the church should change its teachings on family — including contentious issues like whether divorced people should be allowed to receive the sacraments and how the church should receive gay men and women.

Francis never mentioned gays or the divorced directly on Monday, but many analysts believe he wants to push the church to take a more accommodating stance. He pointed to the importance of the October meeting to “consider concrete solutions and aids to the many difficult and significant challenges facing families in our time.”

He asked for people to pray, so that Christ “can take even what might seem to us impure,” scandalous or threatening and turn it “into a miracle.”

The comments, constructed on a biblical lesson about the wedding feast of Cana, seemed aimed at the church debate, though Vatican officials argued otherwise.

“The pope hopes the synod will find a way to help people move from situations of sin to situations of grace,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “He is not referring to anything specific.”

It was the first opportunity for Francis, who arrived on the continent on Sunday, to begin shaping the message of his trip.

Less than a month ago, the pope released a blistering critique of capitalism in an encyclical about environmental degradation and climate change. He is now visiting a country where the president, Rafael Correa, who identifies as a socialist, has been criticized for vowing to open protected areas of the Amazon for oil exploration. But the pope steered clear of the topic in his public remarks.

In the afternoon, Francis planned to fly to the capital, Quito, for a private meeting with Mr. Correa. The president has been the subject of strong protests for proposing to raise taxes and for a belligerent governing style. Critics accuse him of seeking to piggyback on Francis’ message of equality by placing billboards with papal statements all over the capital that support Mr. Correa’s political agenda.

His opponents also used the days before Francis’ visit to stage protests against Mr. Correa.

By choosing to begin his trip in Ecuador, a small country on a large continent, Francis is again underscoring his emphasis on the forgotten peripheries. The decision ignited national pride among many Ecuadoreans.

Helicopters hovered above, beaming images to television stations, as the procession bearing the pope’s white vehicle passed throngs of spectators en route to Samanes Park, which included the immense dirt field that was the setting for the huge outdoor Mass.

Samanes Park is named after a tropical shade tree, but it offered no shade and no trees. Many people had arrived before dawn, bringing plastic stools and umbrellas to ward off the sun, as vendors circulated, hawking food and souvenirs like Francis key chains, crosses, T-shirts and headbands. Large extended families, with grandparents, children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, arrived in groups — the littlest ones often carried on a parent’s shoulders. Priests were stationed at green-topped tents, taking confession as dozens of people waited in line.

“When I got here this morning, I told my wife it felt like we were entering into a kingdom,” said Julio Bustamante, 47, a factory worker who arrived at 4 a.m. and wore a T-shirt bearing a picture of Francis. “It felt like I was reaching a goal that I’ve had for a long time, like achieving peace, salvation.”

Mr. Bustamante also came to see Pope John Paul II when he visited Guayaquil in 1985. He said he was pleased that Francis had chosen Ecuador for his first visit to a Spanish-speaking country in the region (Francis previously visited Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken). Mr. Bustamante and his wife have five children, and he said that family “should have priority.”

“The family is what is with us always,” he said.

Standing on a stage beneath a yellow metal roof, Francis used the wedding feast of Cana — in which by the biblical account Jesus ultimately turned water from ablution jars into wine — as a metaphor in which the wine symbolizes happiness, love and abundance.

“This lack of ‘wine’ can also be due to unemployment, illness and difficult situations which our families may experience,” he said.

Francis’s appearance was the centerpiece of a day that began with a brief visit to children, the elderly and the disabled. He was scheduled to have at least one moment of tranquillity during the hectic day.

After the Mass, he traveled to a Jesuit school in the city. Decades ago, as a Jesuit leader in Argentina, Francis (then Jorge Mario Bergoglio) befriended Francisco Cortés, a priest in Guayaquil known as Father Paquito, who taught at a local Jesuit college.

For years, Francis sent his Argentine students to learn under Father Paquito, and the two men struck up a friendship. Father Paquito, now 91, told the local media that he had not seen his old friend in 30 years. Francis is having lunch at the Jesuit college before flying back to Quito.

Asked by local reporters what he would say to the pope, Father Paquito said he would simply ask, “Why did you remember me?”