QUITO (Reuters) - Pope Francis showed his sense of humor during the last few hours of his trip to Ecuador on Wednesday, straying from a prepared speech to joke with people who came to see him at a shrine near the highland capital Quito.
“I have a prepared script but I don’t want to read it,” said the 78-year-old pope to laughs from the crowd, before asking them to pray for him so that he would never forget where he came from.
“Do not fall into a spiritual Alzheimer’s, do not forget!” Francis added in a totally improvised speech.
The Argentine-born pontiff headed to Bolivia on Wednesday afternoon after drawing about 1.5 million people to Masses in Ecuador on the first leg of a “homecoming” tour, where he urged the world to take better care of the environment and the poor. He also spoke at a home for the elderly in Quito on Wednesday.
“I hope his message allows changes to this country, that it brings peace, ends the problems in Ecuador so we can live with the understanding that we are brothers,” said housewife Celia de la Cruz, 59, who came with her family from Ecuador’s north to the shrine in Quinche.
Ecuador had been rocked by anti-government protests in the weeks before Francis’ visit, but his presence brought a truce.
The pope was flying to high-altitude La Paz, Bolivia, where oxygen tanks are kept at the airport for arriving passengers who may struggle with the thin air. That will focus attention on the pope’s health as he had part of one lung removed when he was younger.
Bolivians are speculating over whether or not the pope will follow local customs and chew coca leaves, the primary ingredient in cocaine, to ward off altitude sickness.
Outside La Paz, Francis will stop at the spot where the body of Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps was found in 1980. The priest, who was a strong supporter of the rights of miners, was tortured and murdered by paramilitaries.
Francis will then meet with Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a leftist who has won widespread support with folksy charm and prudent spending from a natural gas bonanza to cut poverty.
Morales has frequently clashed with the Catholic Church though relations warmed when Francis became pope in 2013.
“We have huge agreements with the pope’s economic and social policies, agreements on welfare,” said Morales on Tuesday in Santa Cruz, adding that it was the first time he had felt such ideological affinity with a pontiff.
On Wednesday evening, the pope flies to Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. There, he will say a Mass on Thursday and the next day visit the notoriously violent Palmasola prison.
In Ecuador, the pope held two Masses, one in the steamy coastal city of Guayaquil and one in Quito. He also met with President Rafael Correa.
“The pope has opened our hearts with his messages, helping us to move forward, especially important in a country where we lack faith, unity and understanding,” said Victoria Zambrano, a 38-year-old doctor who traveled across the country to attend Tuesday’s Mass in Quito.
Ecuador highlights, possibly more than any other country in the world, the inherent difficulties within the pope’s environmental encyclical published last month.
The country earns around one-half of its foreign income from oil, yet is also one of the world’s most biodiverse nations, with more endangered species than anywhere else. A large amount of the oil that the socialist government hopes will help feed the poor, though, is locked up under rainforest land.
In his final speech in Quito on Tuesday, the pope focused on this conundrum. “The tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits,” he said.
“We received this world as an inheritance from past generations, but also as a loan from future generations, to whom we will have to return it!”
During a Mass in Quito, the pope celebrated the region’s 200 years of independence from European powers and urged unity.
Yet there are some on the continent who are not impressed with the Catholic Church and accuse it of holding back women’s rights and gay rights, and being too close to political leaders.
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Quito and Diego Ore in La Paz.; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Grant McCool