QUITO, ECUADOR — When Pope Francis lands here Sunday for a two-day visit launching a weeklong three-country sojourn through South America, many Ecuadorians are hoping the pontiff will address a number of political issues -- especially controversial plans for resource mining in one of the world's most diverse ecological areas.
But some with long service to the local Catholic church are also hoping the pope might offer some strong words to the country's bishops, encouraging them to put aside a hierarchical mindset and adopt a more circular model of governance.
One couple even said they hoped the visit would bring a change to the country's church akin to Jesus' rejection of the pyramid model of governance of the Jewish leadership of his time.
Wants pope to ‘shake up’ local church
"My strong hope ... is that the pope's visit will bring Ecuador's church a shake-up that we need," said Maribel León, an Ecuadorian who is the coordinator for missionary formation for the Quito archdiocese's Pontifical Mission Societies.
"We need to break down the structure and go out to reach people," said León. "The pope's invitation is to become a church that goes out, a church with open doors -- not to receive people, but to go out to reach people."
Marco Laguatasi, León's husband and the executive secretary of the archdiocese's Pontifical Mission Societies, said their local church should work to better understand Francis' missionary impulse.
"We have to reflect, we have to deepen it, we have to live it," said Laguatasi. "When Jesus came, he saw a pyramid structure in the church and said it should not be so. He broke the structure and he strengthened the circular church."
"[Jesus] made a preferential option for the poor, for those in need," said the Ecuadorian. "That's what we need to break those structures."
As part of their work for the archdiocese, Laguatasi and León have been helping plan the logistics for the pope's Sunday-Wednesday visit to their country.
The first stop on a trip that will see the pope continue along the continent's Andes Mountains to Bolivia and Paraguay, Francis lands in Quito Sunday afternoon. Monday he will visit the Ecuadorian Pacific Ocean port city of Guayaquil before returning to the capital.
The pope will meet Tuesday with the country's bishops and with members of civil society, and will also celebrate an outdoor Mass expected to attract crowds in the millions. On Wednesday morning he will meet with clergy and religious before heading on to Bolivia.
Preparations for the pope's visit to Ecuador have been intense, with nearly every major newspaper covering the upcoming trip on their front pages for days leading up to his landing. Many buildings around the downtown area have several story banners welcoming the pope, with quotations from his writings and speeches.
Ecuadorian natives, Laguatasi and León took up their positions in the Quito church after serving for 3.5 years as missionaries in Guatemala.
León said that her dream for Francis' visit would be that he might reflect a church that she, her husband, and their four children saw in Guatemala, where she said the bishops were closer to their people and more aware of their needs.
"Here, the experience with bishops is outside the people," said León. "It's not an up close experience."
"The pope should know it's in his hands to reach to the heart of the authorities of the church," she said. "I would like the pope to know that he could make this big shake-up for what our church here needs."
Another Ecuadorian who leads an ecumenical commission for human rights in the country also said she hoped the pope might send a message to the country's bishops.
Maryknoll Sr. Elsie Monge said she thought the pope could take a moment during his meeting with the clergy to stress the importance of aggiornamento for the local church, using the Italian term frequently mentioned during the Second Vatican Council to refer to updating the church.
The Maryknoll member said the pope might tell the bishops to listen to their people and to "go walk with them" so as to "be closer to the people ... [to] try to understand their needs."
Environmental issues on agenda
But Monge, León, and Laguatasi also all said that Francis should take the opportunity during his visit with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa Monday afternoon to discuss the president's opening of resource mining in Yasuni National Park.
A 2.5 million acre large nature preserve near the Ecuador's eastern border with Peru, Yasuni has been called one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth and is also home to several uncontacted indigenous tribes.
Monge is the executive director for the Ecuadorian Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights, an organization of unions, farmers, and professional groups that started in 1978 to focus on human rights education and advocacy.
The advocate said much of her group's work in recent years has been focused on efforts to help local groups protesting the mining, which has seen large multinational companies go to incredible effort to extract a number of resources, but primarily gold, silver, and copper.
Monge said her group wrote a letter Francis ahead of visit, telling him how devastating the mining is for nature and especially for the non-contacted groups. She said they asked the pontiff to be aware of the issue, and, "if possible," to address it with Correa.
"I think his presence is an occasion for people to reflect on the need to go deeper, to get to the causes of poverty, of infringing the rights of the nature," she said of the pontiff. "There are things that are talked about, but I think with the way the pope takes it on himself ... it's not something abstract."
Monge also called Correa's administration authoritarian and said the pope could stress to the president "in a very gentle way" that it is important to listen to the peoples' perspectives.
"Solving conflicts in a way of listening ... that's not part of our scenario," said Monge. "Maybe with [Francis'] example it would make people say let's go that way."
León also mentioned the environmental issue, saying that when Correa first ran for president in 2007 he promised not to allow mining in the Yasuni Park. She said she hopes Francis could point to his new ecological encyclical, Laudato Si', "to make our government understand that what [Correa] is doing to our environment is not positive."
Correa, León said, is "taking our natural wealth, changing it for a financial wealth and eliminating the peoples' living there."
Most of all, however, León and Laguatasi focused on changes they hoped Francis might bring to the Ecuadorian church.
‘Waking up’ to pope’s call
Laguatasi said he thought his church needed to "wake up" to the pope's call to become more circular in it’s functioning. He said that his experience in his work in the archdiocese is very clerical.
"We lay persons are only helpers of the priests and we are secondary players," he said. "But the pope speaks of a circular church, where we are all the same but we have different functions. The functions complement each other and he emphasizes the role of the laity in all environments."
"I think that out church in Ecuador needs to move in that circular direction, to wake up," said Laguatasi.
León pointed to the document then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio helped write at the end of the Latin American Episcopal Conference meeting in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007.
She cited from a paragraph of the document that called for the church to change its structures to create an "attitude of openness, dialogue, and willingness to promote the stewardship and real participation of all the faithful in the life of Christian communities."
"My strong hope is in the sense that the Aparecida document said we should change the structures," she said. "This is from a personal change towards a community change. The document invites us to change -- the bishops, the priests, religious, lay persons, everyone."
Asked what they hope Francis might learn most about Ecuador from his visit, Laguatasi said the "great heritage" of his country is its people.
"We are very kind, very open, very warm," he said. "We open the doors of our hearts and our homes wide. I think the pope will know about this. I think that is the greatest wealth we have."