Noah Schumer reports from Ecuador
On a June evening two weeks before Pope Francis’s arrival in Ecuador, I watch a half-dozen workers balance on scaffolding at the edge of Quito’s Parque Bicentenario, battling the wind as they erect a thirty-foot cross. The moon, near full, shines like a silver spotlight on the construction site. In the background is the Pichincha Volcano, a silhouette on the navy sky. Fifty yards away, a large stage has been built in front of an abandoned airport terminal, a relic of the park’s previous existence. My friend Maritza and I walk down a long stretch of tarmac — formerly a runway — and toward the stage. ”What would you ask the Pope, if you could ask him one question?” she says. In the moment, all I can come up with is a cliché about whether he’s ever doubted the existence of God. Maritza pauses. “I would give him a hug,” she says. “And ask him to tell me about his mother.”
Closer to the exit we approach a security guard to find out when the park will open to worshippers wanting to camp out in advance of the Pope’s Mass. He says the park will open the afternoon prior and has heard estimates from his bosses that more than a million people will attend. “I wouldn’t come, though,” he says. “It’ll be dangerous. What’s the point? He’s just a human being like the rest of us”. The guard turns away, retreating from the wind into his covered lookout. I observe the workers, who for days have been building the stage, setting up stacks of speakers and assembling video screens. And I think of the twelve million Catholics in Ecuador; the forty churches packed into Quito’s colonial center; the months long, borderline obsessive media coverage of the preparations for the Pope’s visit; the billboards with papal quotations plastered across the city; the recent Laudato si’ encyclical, and its relevance to the ongoing debate over proposed oil drilling in Yasuni National Park; the social laws influenced by church theology; the coming invasion by the international media; the dozens of original songs written and recorded to commemorate the first Latin American Pope’s return to Hispanophone countries on his home continent. “Not quite,” I say.
A little boy, sitting on his father’s shoulders, spots the plane first, dipping below the clouds, angling through a mountain pass, circling the valley to position for landing. Soon, another hundred or so arms go up, pointing fingers and camera phones as the aircraft descends into Mariscal Sucre International Airport. The wheels touch down. Someone shouts “Alitalia!” The police straighten their posture. Most people applaud.
The plane parks within view of the crowd that has gathered at the airport to greet the Pope. Maritza, a teacher and lifelong Quiteña who has previously described herself to me as a “lapsed Catholic,” says out loud, to nobody in particular, that she feels emotional. As the door opens, two police officers walk over to the barbed-wire fence encasing the runway, inadvertently blocking the crowd’s view of the airstairs. People whistle and holler. For a moment, I fear a riot. But the policemen move in time. We watch as the Pope stands in his white robes at the top of the stairs. From a distance, I can see the breeze take the skullcap off his head.
As I witness later on television, the Pope is greeted at the bottom of the stairs by a grinning President Rafael Correa, transparently eager to position himself as the Vatican’s man in Ecuador. They take to a podium and make brief speeches. During his own, the Pope quips to Correa that the president has “quoted me too much … thank you,” an allusion, perhaps, to opposition parties’ claims that the president has sought to co-opt the Pope’s words in support of his political agenda. Correa smiles awkwardly. He looks diminished. Over the roar of the Alitalia Airbus’s engines, which serve as a kind of rhythm section, we listen to a children’s choir. An hour after touching down, the Pope climbs into the backseat of a modest hatchback and rolls down the window. Jet-lagged, he waves to us while passing by.
I speak with several people at the airport. Lucas Espín, a fifty-year old who has traveled three hours from Tungurahua Province in Central Ecuador, says that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be present when the Pope arrived in his country. “Pope Francis is a divine blessing for the world,” he says. “A symbol of peace, happiness, and tranquility.” Francisco Moreno, a sixty-year old construction worker from Quito, says the Pope’s heritage has inspired him to come. “It’s been thirty years since a Pope has visited Ecuador. And the truth is that Pope Francis is Hispanic. He is one of us. He speaks our language. He’s close to us.” Others downplay the Pope’s ethnicity. Juan Carlos Sánchez, a thirty year-old mechanic from Cotopaxi Province, tells me the Pope’s Argentinian nationality is of little importance, because, “We are all humans, we are all the same.”
Midway between the airport and central Quito, the convoy stops at the Ecuadorean national football team’s headquarters so that the Pope can transfer into the Popemobile, an open-roof white Jeep. Television clips show the Pope’s bodyguards, dressed in black suits with crème colored earpieces, jogging beside the Wrangler as it rolls across the Cumbayá valley toward the city. A cyclist keeps pace with the Popemobile, snapping vertical pictures until one of the bodyguards shoos him away.
A Vatican spokesman later estimates that 500,000 people lined the streets to welcome the Pope, a figure equivalent to nearly one-fifth of Quito’s population.
We spend an hour fighting through dense clusters of bodies in Quito’s Centro Histórico, hunting for a spot from which to watch Pope Francis cross the street. It rained earlier in the day, but the clouds thin as the sun descends, turning the twilight sepia. The air is charged. Street vendors sell prístinos con miel, special for the occasion. Bomberos with walkie-talkies line the avenues. The old city is consumed by the presence of the Pope; I feel the disorienting absence of routine. It is difficult to conjure another human being who could dominate Quito in this way. In front of me, an elderly lady buys a DVD entitled, “Who Is Francis? Buy The Original Disc Here; Do Not Be Fooled.”
The Plaza Grande, where the Pope is meeting with President Correa in the Carondelet Palace, is cordoned off for several blocks, but Maritza and I wait with hundreds of other people on a street perpendicular to the palace, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pope leaving. I stand on a fire hydrant. Several men climb up the side of the old Central Bank, now a museum. Four teenagers sit on a police truck. Policemen demand they get down, but one of the kids doesn’t budge. The crowd yells at him, backing the authorities. After a few tense minutes the teenager relents.
On a television in a nearby empanada joint, we watch the Pope, chaperoned by Correa, greet dignitaries in the presidential palace. At one point, a woman kneels before the Pope. Behind them, Correa gives a thumbs-up to someone off-screen. The optics of the Pope mingling with Ecuador’s elite are awkward, given his reputation as a man of the poor. “I think the diplomatic protocols need to be changed,” Maritza says. “The Pope is a person who represents the people. It’s necessary that he be able to greet everybody. There are a lot of people outside of the presidential palace who, in the least, just want to catch a glimpse of him.”
After an hour, the Pope walks across the plaza to a podium in front of La Catedral. I’m probably projecting, but I think he looks more relaxed than he had inside the palace. He shows few traces of fatigue, despite having flown to and from Guayaquil for a Mass earlier in the day. Smiling, the Pope utters a few remarks. His final words of the night are “hasta mañana.”
In the heat, a legless vendor sells pope-themed tchotchkes: pins, posters, dolls, and small wooden crucifixes. Smiling volunteers hold hands, directing people through Parque Bicentenario, which is fenced into quadrants. A young woman walks past me wearing a black t-shirt with “I Heart Papa Francisco” written in red letters over her chest. Despite arriving before dawn, Maritza and I struggle to find space in a quadrant within sight of the main stage. It rained through the night, and people gradually emerge from damp tents. Most seem to be in a good mood. As the sky clears, the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi Volcano is visible to the south. We sit on newspapers on the wet ground, craning our necks at a video screen.
The presentador is a square-jawed TV anchor named Roberto Rodriguez, familiar to most Ecuadorians, who encourages festive “Papa Francisco” chants while imploring people to remain calm once the Pope actually arrives. Another man takes the microphone and encourages the crowd to “salute” any cameras pointed in their direction with “the friendliness of an Ecuadorian.” Around 8:30am, multiple helicopters appear in the sky, and the screens show images of the Pope’s hatchback being pelted by flowers as it speeds toward the park. The Pope’s car reaches the grounds and he disappears backstage. Rodriguez continues to lead chants of the Pope’s name. The crowd participation seems, in part, like a reaction to the rising popularity of evangelical services in Ecuador. This is the first time I’ve felt disturbed during the Pope’s visit: the size of the crowd, the heat, the constant chanting of the Pope’s name, and the ubiquity of his face on t-shirts and posters all create the impression of a cult of personality. The Mass is economically diverse, but the front section — with chairs — looks dominated by a wealthier set. As of 10am, the Pope remains backstage. I have a terrible premonition that something is wrong. But less than five minutes later he appears, mounting the Popemobile. He cruises between the quadrants to the adulation of over a million fieles. Correa and other high-level government officials arrive at the park at this time but are paid little attention.
Most of the Mass itself is unremarkable, even boring. The sound and video periodically cut out. The equatorial sun has reached a boiling midday strength. The Pope’s remarks are a paean to social cohesion, anodyne in comparison to his political speeches and to the comments he will go on to make later in the day, and later in the trip, where he will toss aside prepared statements and admonish those who wish to harm the environment (such as, presumably, drilling in Yasuni) in exchange for short-term economic benefits. There are no hints of the Pope’s possible interest in changing Church policy on homosexuality, or abortion, or contraception, or other controversial issues. But as people exchange the sign of peace, hugging and shaking hands with their neighbors, there is an outpouring of genuine emotion. Tears are shed. In a country in the midst of a divisive “Citizen’s Revolution,” Pope Francis says: “Our faith is always revolutionary.” We leave Mass a few minutes early but catch a final glimpse of the Popemobile an hour later as it races away from the park to some other location.
Two days later I sit with Maritza’s mother, Maria, a sixty-one year old accountant, in Parque La Carolina in the late afternoon. The Pope has left the previous morning for Bolivia, and the pace of life in the city has returned to normal. It’s as if everyone is exhaling at the same time. We talk over the sound of drills a few dozen yards away, as workers renovate the park’s botanical garden. A stooped woman looks at us while walking by, pushing a cart of sliced mangoes. Maria gestures at the construction. “This is why I support Correa,” she says. “This is part of ‘good living’” — one of the government’s slogans. “Before, our leaders were lawyers. Now, they get things done.” Unlike her daughter, she is a devout Catholic, and she asks me if I noticed how much time the Pope spent with Correa. “They talked a lot,” she says. “They’re close.” I ask if the Pope’s visit would have a lasting effect on Ecuador. “Yes,” she says. “We are spiritually renewed.”
Although Maritza described her mother to me as a “workaholic,” Maria considers herself foremost the mother of five children. She had her youngest son, Daniel, in her forties, and he is developmentally disabled. She’s raising him alone, without help from his father. Caring for Daniel is difficult but Maria calls him her “Angel of God.”
Maria’s apartment is within walking distance of the house where the Pope stayed, and she spent many hours with Daniel and her teenage daughter Noelia waiting outside for his benediction, even in the rain. On Tuesday afternoon — the day before the Pope left — one of the Vatican security guards suggested to Maria and a few other families that if they wrote cards, he would be glad to deliver them to the Pope. Maria raced home, put a picture of her children with an image of the Virgin Mary in an envelope, and wrote a note to the Pope thanking him for taking time to visit Ecuador, “a country of peace, a country with many believers.” She is a serious and formal person, not prone to smiling. But as she recounts the experience of writing a letter to the Pope, her face brightens and her tone becomes lighter, almost innocent. She speaks uninterrupted for more than ten minutes. “For a small amount of time we had a brilliant neighbor,” she says. “It was a surprise to be able to write directly to him. We were able to give the guard our note on the final day, and I believe that of the last group of letters, mine was on top. I’m very happy and emotional that a picture of my kids will remain in Italy, close to the Pope.” The light is fading from the park and our conversation is over, but she directs me to write down one more statement before leaving: “I feel blessed,” she says, “to have spent these days in his presence.”
Image credits: All photos are by Noah Schumer.