VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) - On the first full day of his apostolic journey to South America Pope Francis had already drawn more than 1 million people to his first public Mass in Guayaquil, the Vatican's spokesman estimates.
"There were a lot of the people in the streets of Guayaquil. 300,000 or 500,000 people were on the streets of the city," Holy See press officer Father Federico Lombardi told journalists July 6.
Although it's never easy to make an estimate in a place he's never been before, Fr. Lombardi said the Pope's Mass at Guayaquil's Sanctuary of Divine Mercy drew almost twice as many pilgrims, many of whom had been camping out since the night before.
"It's plausible, honestly, to say that practically a million people were there."
Security officials present at yesterday's Mass numbered attendees at 250-300,000; however, the Vatican spokesman insisted that the streets were also "full of people. So, between the two, I think the Pope saw many more than a million people."
Father Lombardi spoke to journalists during a press briefing at the end of Pope Francis' first full day of his July 5-13 apostolic journey to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
After landing in Quito Sunday afternoon, the Pope transferred to Guayaquil the next morning, where he visited and celebrated Mass at the city's new Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, which was completed in 2013.
He then had lunch with the Jesuit Community at Javier College in Guayaquil before heading back to Quito, where he met privately with Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, and payed a brief visit to the city's cathedral.
Father Lombardi said the number of people who turned out for the morning's events was surprising given the high temperatures.
Although Francis didn't use his pope-mobile, but instead drove in a closed car on the way to the Mass, "there was a real warmth from the people - a Christian love from the people."
When asked what effect the Pope was having on the people so far, the spokesman replied that "It's incredible how messages about people who suffer arouse an interest in him and he does what he can to respond ... it comes from the heart."
"You can't always do it. But, it's always spontaneous ... and a great symbol. I think it can give us all comfort."
Amid concerns that the intensity of the trip as well as the high altitude of some of the cities he'll land in - Bolivia's international airport is the highest in the world, and Quito is 1.77 miles above sea level - Father Lombardi noted that the Pope's health is "always surprising."
"The Pope, with his age, it's incredible. He has a lot of energy and he always says it's not normal. It's a gift from God," the spokesman said.
He noted that although some people complained about having headaches, the Pope was fine, even with high temperatures and a notable altitude change going from Quito to Guayaquil.
After concluding Mass, Pope Francis headed to Guayaquil's Javier College to meet with the local Jesuit community, which he makes a point to do during each of his trips.
Monday's encounter was a particular joy due to the fact that as provincial in Argentina, Francis sent 30 young men for formation to the house. The spiritual director at the time, Father Francisco Cortés, who will be 91 in just a few days, was also present.
The lunch lasted at least an hour, Father Lombardi noted, explaining that there were roughly 20 Jesuits present.
"It was a very nice event, very familiar. We spoke about Jesuit thought, about the college, about the Jesuits present - (it was) a very simple meeting of religious from the same congregation."
Father Lombardi revealed that once the Pope Francis returned to Quito, he met Ecuador's president privately for 20-30 minutes, with no prepared speech.
Although he had no information on the content of the discussion, the spokesman said that meetings such as this during trips are usually more personal than political.
"In my experience, what the Pope has as a personal charism is the encounter with a person. It's not about a problem, but it's about encountering the other ... finding his identity, his humanity," he said.
"I can't say what they spoke about but I can say that it was an encounter between two people. What's most important is that it's an encounter between two persons. It's something that engages the person. It's not possible not to reflect about oneself and one's attitudes after a meeting like that."
Francis gave the president a mosaic of a Marian image inside the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, as well as a copy of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and his recent encyclical Laudato Si', both of which "are a point of reference for this trip."
Father Correa for his part gave the Pope a painting a well-known church in Quito.
Father Lombardi also drew attention to the pastoral staff Francis is using during the trip: the staff is a replica of one made by prisoners in the Italian jail of San Remo. It was made out of wood, as a symbol of Christ's cross. The staff "is very dear to the Pope," and is the one he brought with him to the Holy Land last May, the spokesman said.
Because the Pope liked the staff so much, an exact replica was made out of olive wood in the Holy Land.
"It is true olive wood, made in Bethlehem and used for the first time during Palm Sunday in 2014," Father Lombardi observed, adding that this staff "will be used many times on foreign trips."
When asked why the Pope decided to visit these three countries - Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay - during his second trip to South America as Bishop of Rome, the spokesman said he is using the same strategy he has employed with smaller trips inside Europe.
Pope Francis, he said, "is fulfilling his desire to not begin with the biggest countries, but the smaller ones."