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, which the pope will visit, to protest proposed legislation that would increase inheritance and capital gains taxes.
President Rafael Correa announced he would temporarily withdraw the legislation from consideration, at least until after the pope’s visit. The protests are expected to 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 pope 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.
Catholic educators 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.
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.
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