QUITO, ECUADOR — Bishops and priests in the Catholic church must recognize that they have chosen lives of complete service to their people without any moment for rest or personal gain, Pope Francis told a gathering of clergy in his final public event during a trip to Ecuador.
In a poignant and personal meeting between the clergy and the first pope from the Americas, Francis scrubbed his prepared text and said he wanted to offer them some advice "as a brother and father."
The key counsel from the brotherly pope: Those who serve as clergy in the church should strive to remember that God has chosen them to serve, and their vocation does not come from them but is God's choice.
Making reference to an old priest he said he knew who chose to work with the poor following his retirement, Francis said: "Those who choose the path of service ... are always at others' service. Not a moment belongs to them."
"I am here to serve," the pope said, quoting that old priest. "What I must do, I will do. And I will pray before the altar for my people."
Francis then pleaded with, even begged, Ecuadorean church leaders to give of themselves freely.
"Mix up service with gratuity," the pope exhorted them. "What you got free from Jesus, give it away for free. Please. Please. Do not charge anything for that, for grace. Please."
Francis spoke Wednesday at a Marian shrine in El Quinche, a small city about 20 miles northeast of Quito and near Ecuador's Colombian border.
The visit was the last in his whirlwind trip to country since his arrival Sunday, part of a longer South American tour that will see the pope travel to Bolivia later Wednesday before heading to Paraguay on Friday.
Public reaction to the pope's visit has been overwhelming, with two Masses celebrated by Francis on Monday and Tuesday each attracting crowds of more than 1 million people. Many have been camping out or traveling extreme distances to chance an in-person view of the pope.
Francis mixed his remarks to the religious Wednesday with advice he has frequently given to priests and bishops in such meetings. For example, he again warned the clergy against what he has called a "spiritual Alzheimer's" that he said leads some to forget their original calling.
"Do not forget where you came from," he told the Ecuadoreans. "Do not deny your roots."
The pope's unused prepared text had also warned the clergy to understand their positions as ones of service.
"The 'authority' which the Apostles receive from Jesus is not for their own benefit," that text said. "Our gifts are to renew and build up the Church."
"Do not refuse to share, do not hesitate to give, do not lock yourself up in convenience," it continued. "Be like a spring which overflows and refreshes others, especially those burdened by sin, disappointment [and] resentment."
"God responds to the cry of his people, sending a little child to bring salvation and, at the same time, to restore hope to elderly parents," the text said later. "The word of God tells us that, in the history of Israel, the judges, the prophets and the kings are God's gifts to his people, to bring them his tenderness and mercy."
"They are signs of God's gratuitousness," it continued. "It is he who has chosen them, selected them, destined them."
"This moves us from self-centeredness to make us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that our vocation calls us to let go of all selfishness, all seeking of material gain or emotional rewards, as the Gospel has told us," it said.
"We are not hired workers, but servants; we have not come to be served, but to serve, and we do so with complete detachment, without walking stick or backpack."
The pope met earlier Wednesday with elderly people at a center run by the Missionaries of Charity in Quito. He took time to meet one on one with many of the older people, offering hugs to people in wheelchairs. He also prayed before an image of the missionaries' founder, Mother Teresa.
Francis leaves for La Paz, Bolivia, at about noon, where he will meet with Bolivian President Evo Morales and civil authorities. He then heads to the town of Santa Cruz, where we will host several meetings Thursday and Friday.