GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Pope Francis preached about the importance of the family, which he described as “the nearest hospital, the first school for the young, and the best home for the elderly” in front of several hundred thousand worshippers during the first stop in his three-nation tour of South America.

“How many of our adolescents and young people sense that [happiness, love, and plenty] are no longer found in their homes?” Francis asked. “How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives? How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love?”

Francis said that unemployment, illness and difficult situations which families experience can also lead to a lack of love in the family life.

He asked for “fervent prayers” for October’s Synod on the Family, saying that the two-week long meeting of Catholic bishops would be devoted to finding concrete solutions to the difficult and significant challenges facing families.

“I ask you to pray fervently for this intention, so that Christ can take what might seem to us impure, scandalous, or threatening, and turn it into a miracle” he said.

A Vatican spokesman tried to get ahead of any spin about what Francis may have had in mind when he mentioned threats.

“The pope hopes this Synod will help people to move from situations of sin to a state of grace; he’s not referring to anything specific,” Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters during the flight Quito to Guayaquil.

During the homily, published by Vatican Radio, Francis invited the gathered faithful to be led by Mary, saying that she’s not a “mother-in-law who revels in our lack of experience, our mistakes and the things we forget to do,” but a mother, attentive and concerned.

Within the family, Francis said, no one is disposable, and said that miracles are performed “with what little we have.” Many times, he said, family life is not ideal nor “what we dreamed of,” nor even what “should have been.”

The pope urged society to invest in the family, because despite what statistics say, the richest, deepest, and most beautiful things are yet to come.

“The time is coming when we will taste love daily, when our children will come to appreciate the home we share, and our elderly will be present each day in the joys of life,” Francis said.

The Mass was celebrated in Guayaquil’s Los Samanes Park, the largest one in the city, under a blazing sun with temperatures soaring into the 90s accompanied with high humidity. The park remains under construction, but was chosen nonetheless because it is the only place large enough to hold the number of worshippers.

With 4 million inhabitants, Guayaquil is the largest city in the country, but local officials were forced to use the park, amounting to little more than a large, empty plot of dust, in order to accommodate nearly a quarter of the city inhabitants.

Thousands present held up signs thanking Francis for the visit, asking for prayers, or inviting him to their countries. One read, “Guayaquil prays for persecuted Christians,” highlighting a concern close to the pope’s heart. Worshippers waved several national flags, including from many Latin American nations, as well as the Stars and Stripes.

As expected, at times Francis strayed from his prepared remarks, at one point sharing a personal story about his own childhood.

“When my mom was asked which one of her five children she loved the most, she’d said each one was like a finger: If you pinch one, it hurts as much as if you’d pinched the other,” the pope said, pretending to pinch one of his fingers.

Francis returned to Spanish-speaking South America for the first time since he was elected pope this Sunday. He will continue his eight-day whirlwind tour in Bolivia and then on to Paraguay.

The backbone of Tuesday’s 17-minute homily was the wedding story at Cana. According to the text, Mary, a guest to the wedding with her son, convinced Jesus to perform his first known miracle, turning water into wine. The pope compared the family to the wine.

“The finest of wines will come for every person who stakes everything on love. And it will come in spite of all the variables and statistics which say otherwise; the best wine is yet to come for those who today feel hopelessly lost,” he said.