Quito - History's first Latin American pope returns to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time on Sunday, bringing a message of solidarity with the region's poor, who are expected to turn out in droves to welcome their native son home.
"The pope of the poor" chose to visit Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay specifically because they are among the poorest and most marginal nations of a region that claims 40% of the world's Catholics. He's skipping his homeland of Argentina, at least partly to avoid papal entanglement in this year's presidential election.
The trip starts in Ecuador, where falling world prices for oil and minerals threaten to fray the social safety net woven by President Rafael Correa, who has been buffeted for nearly a month by the most serious anti-government street protests of his more than eight years in power.
Pope Francis is likely to raise environmental concerns with Correa and the leader of Bolivia - who have promoted mining and oil drilling in wilderness areas - given his recent encyclical on the need to protect nature and the poor who suffer most when it is exploited.
In that document, Pope Francis called for a new development model that rejects today's profit-at-all cost mentality in favour of a Christian view of economic progress that respects human rights, safeguards the planet and involves all sectors of society, the poor and marginalized included.
In a video message on the eve of his departure, the pope said he wanted to bring a message of hope and joy to all "especially the neediest, the elderly, the sick, those in prison and the poor and all those who are victims of this 'throwaway culture'."
Pope Francis' stops include a violent Bolivian prison, a flood-prone Paraguayan shantytown and a meeting with Bolivian trash pickers, the sort of people he ministered to in the slums of Buenos Aires as archbishop.
Crowds are expected to be huge. While the countries themselves are tiny compared to regional powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina, they are fervently Catholic: 79% of the population is Catholic in Ecuador, 77% in Bolivia and a whopping 89% in Paraguay, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Vatican says it expects more than 1 million people to turn out for Pope Francis' major public masses in each country, and organisers have scheduled plenty of time for the pope to meander through the throngs expected to line his motorcade route.