Landing in Ecuador on Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis began his tri-nation visit to Latin America by stressing the Gospel’s role in fostering respect, dialogue, and care for the vulnerable, while praising the nation’s centuries-old Catholic heritage. “We can find in the Gospel a key to meeting contemporary challenges, respecting differences, fostering dialogue and full participation, so that the growth in progress and development already registered will ensure a better future for everyone, with particular concern for the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.” “For centuries that faith has shaped the identity of this people and borne much good fruit,” he added. Speaking of Ecuador’s Catholic heritage, the Pope cited the saints who have been produced by the country, such as St. Mariana de Jesus, St. Miguel Febres, and St. Narcisa de Jes√∫s, as well as Blessed Mercedes de Jes√∫s Molina, beatified in 1985 during St. John Paul II’s visit. “These, and others like them, lived their faith with intensity and enthusiasm, and by their works of mercy they contributed in a variety of ways to improving the Ecuadorian society of their day.” Pope Francis made these remarks during a welcoming ceremony at Ecuador’s Quito International airport shortly after his arrival. He spoke to a delegation which included Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, government authorities, and his fellow bishops. The Pope told the delegation that his reason for coming to Ecuador was to be “a witness of God’s mercy and of faith in Jesus Christ.” Ecuador is the first stop in Pope Francis’ visit to the continent of his birth, which is taking place July 5-13. The journey will also include stops in Bolivia and Paraguay. Having reflected on the nation’s Catholic heritage, the Pope noted the Christian significance of Ecuador being home to the peak “closest to the sun” of Chimborazo, the point closest on earth nearest to outer space. “We Christians identify Christ with the sun, and the moon with the Church, the community of the faithful. No one, save Jesus Christ, possesses his or her own light.” “May the coming days make all of us ever more clearly aware of how close is the sun which ‘dawns upon us from on high’. May each of us be a true reflection of his light and his love.” Pope Francis expressed his desire “to embrace all of Ecuador,” adding: “May you never lose the ability to protect what is small and simple, to care for your children and your elderly, to have confidence in the young, and to be constantly struck by the nobility of your people and the singular beauty of your country.” The Pope concluded his address by appealing to “the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to which Ecuador has been consecrated.” Although President Cerrea was present at the welcoming ceremony, the Pope — digressing from the custom — will not officially meet with the Ecuadorean leader until he after his July 6 visit to the sanctuary in Guayaquil, followed by lunch with the Jesuit Community at the Colegio Javier.