By Barbara J. Fraser Catholic News Service
LIMA, Peru (CNS) — When Pope Francis lands in Ecuador July 5, he will be returning to a country where he has long-standing bonds of ministry and friendship.
He will celebrate one such bond the next day, lunching with 90-year-old Father Francisco Cortes, known as “Padre Paquito,” at the Colegio Javier, a Jesuit school in Guayaquil.
The two became friends in the early 1980s, when then-Father Jorge Bergoglio, who was in charge of Jesuit formation in his native Argentina, sent seminarians to teach at the Colegio Javier as part of their training, Father Gilberto Freire, provincial of the Jesuits in Ecuador, told Catholic News Service.
“As Jesuits, we’re very happy with the Holy Father’s mission and that he has chosen Ecuador as the first country he will visit,” Father Freire said. “In all of Ecuador, there are high expectations for his visit.”
The pope’s trip comes amid some political upheaval in the country. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Guayaquil and Quito, the country’s largest cities and the two the pope will visit, to protest proposed legislation that would increase inheritance and capital gains taxes.
President Rafael Correa announced that he would temporarily withdraw the legislation from consideration, at least until after the pope’s visit, and observers say the protests probably will subside while the pontiff is in the country.
Pope Francis will meet with educators, religious and representatives of civic groups during his three days in Ecuador. He also will visit a home for poor senior citizens and spend time in prayer with local Jesuits in the order’s colonial church, known as the Iglesia de la Compania, in Quito’s historical city center.
During his homilies and public remarks, the pontiff may touch on some issues that are sensitive in a country where the president, who identifies himself as a practicing Catholic opposed to both abortion and gay marriage, has drawn praise for sharply lowering poverty rates and criticism for his authoritarian style in implementing policies in what he calls a “citizen’s revolution.”
Government measures that punish or silence individuals or organizations that criticize the administration may come up at the pope’s meeting with representatives of civic groups July 7, some observers said.
The choice of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador as the venue for a meeting with educators July 7 is significant, Father Freire said, not only because of the Jesuit university’s role in higher education in Ecuador, but because government approval of its revised bylaws has been pending since 2008 despite ongoing talks with government officials.
“The Holy Father’s presence will be a sign of support for the Catholic university,” Father Freire said.
Catholic educators attending the meeting with the pope also are hoping it will give a boost to Catholic education in general. Laws passed since Correa took office in 2007 have improved the quality of education, but restrict the teaching of religion and limit tuition hikes even when teachers’ salaries increase, said Bishop Walter Heras, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Zamora in southern Ecuador.
Some schools have been forced to close for economic reasons, he said, while religious education must be adapted to fall under other curriculum categories, such as education in values.
“Parents should have the right to decide what kind of education they want for their children,” Bishop Heras said.
Ecuadorean Catholics also will listen for echoes of the pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, in a country where oil drilling and mineral mining cause conflict.
The killing of Jose Tendetza Antun, a Shuar indigenous leader whose body was found in December, remains unsolved, Bishop Heras said. Tendetza once worked at a large open-pit copper mine in Zamora, but left the company and spoke out against pollution from mining.
Although Zamora has a long history of small-scale gold mining, huge opencast mines are new to Ecuador, Bishop Heras said. The Mirador mine in Zamora has displaced communities, particularly indigenous people, and raised tensions, he said.
Oil drilling in the Ecuadorean Amazon also has led to conflict. Correa drew international attention in 2007, when he announced that the country would suspend plans to tap into huge oil reserves under the highly biodiverse Yasuni National Park in the southern Amazon region if international donors would compensate the country for the economic loss.
The government abandoned the plan in 2013, however, when donations fell far short of the $3.6 billion goal.
Pastoral ministry in the Amazon is a priority for Jesuits in Latin America, and the region’s bishops and Caritas agencies are establishing a Pan Amazonian Network to connect church workers in the nine countries that share the basin. The Vatican has expressed its support for the network.
Government officials in mineral-rich Latin American nations, including Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, argue that the only way to reduce poverty in their countries is to take advantage of natural resources that are in demand elsewhere in the world, especially in China.
But Bishop Heras said Ecuador had other economic possibilities, including tourism, agriculture and fisheries, which could be developed at a lower social and environmental cost.
He said he hopes the pope will speak out in Ecuador in support of care for creation, as well as the right to dissent and the right of civic groups to organize.
“We have high hopes” for Pope Francis’ visit, Bishop Heras said. “The voice of the pope is much loved and well respected.”