Pope's South American trip: defending the poor and the planet

Thu Jul 2, 2015 2:18pm EDT
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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis sets out on Sunday to three of South America's poorest and smallest countries, taking his message of solidarity with the downtrodden to prisoners, peasants, garbage pickers and indigenous people.

The July 5-13 trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay will be his first abroad since he made a clarion call for defense of the environment and the poor in his landmark encyclical "Laudato Si" last month.

It is also the Argentine pope's first trip to Spanish-speaking South America - he made a trip to Brazil for a youth festival in 2013 to substitute for his predecessor Benedict after his sudden resignation. He is expected to improvise as he delivers some 25 speeches.

Because he chose the three countries himself, Vatican aides say this is the real "homecoming" to his native continent. He won't visit his native Argentina until next year.

He will enter Bolivia's notoriously violent Palmasola prison, a virtual city with its own rules. In Ecuador, he will comfort elderly patients in a hospice and visit sick children. In Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, he will enter one of the country's poorest shantytowns, the flood-prone Banado Norte.

The health of the 78-year-old pope, who lost part of a lung to sickness when he was a young man, will be in the spotlight as he confronts possible altitude sickness during a quick stop in La Paz, Bolivia, which has the world's highest international airport.

Just as he chose Albania as the first European country outside Italy to visit instead of Europe's economic and political powerhouses, his choices this time again show his concern for people and nations on the margins.

"He wants to show that you can see issues clearer from the periphery instead of from the center," said an adviser close to the pope who spoke on condition of anonymity.   Continued...

Pedestrians walk at San Francisco square where an image of Pope Francis is displayed in La Paz June 30, 2015. REUTERS/David Mercado