Pope praises "the most glorious women of America"
POPE Francis lauded the strength and religious fervour of women while visiting Paraguay's most important pilgrimage site.
His two-day visit to the country also gave thousands of his fellow Argentines the opportunity to also see Latin America's first Pope close to home soil; they joined hundreds of thousands of local faithful at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Caacupe.
"Being here with you makes me feel at home," said Francis.
He spoke affectionately about the women of the tiny, land-locked nation, praising them for rebuilding the country after a devastating war in the 1860s wiped out more than half the population, primarily men.
"Then and now, you found the strength not to let this land lose its bearings," he said to wild cheers from the crowd.
"God bless your perseverance. God bless and encourage your faith. God bless the women of Paraguay, the most glorious women of America."
Thousands of people packed the main square and nearby streets at Caacupe. Argentina's blue and white flag and its national team football jersey almost outnumbering emblems of Paraguay.
The gathering at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Caacupe was evidence of Francis's special affection for the revered image of the Virgin Mary.
He declared the simple church, which houses a little wooden statue of the virgin, as the world's newest basilica, giving it special status in the Catholic Church.
When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio often visited the Villa 21 slum where many Paraguayan immigrants live, joining them in their religious processions and celebrating baptisms at their church, Our Lady of Miracles of Caacupe.
Secularism and the increasing influence of evangelical Protestantism are encroaching on adherence to Catholicism in the region, but Paraguay remains overwhelmingly Catholic, with 89 per cent of the population professing the faith.
"We wanted to come to Caacupe because Francis always talked about it when he was in Argentina," said Jose Demetrio Barrionuevo (50), who came with his wife and four children from Tucuman, Argentina.
"We want to spend as much time as we can with Francis," Mr Barrionuevo said.
"We are so proud of him, not just that he is Argentine, but that he is the first Latin American Pope. We are also proud of his humility, that he prefers to be with the poor and not the rich."
Tradition has it that the Caacupe virgin was carved by a Guarani man named Jose, by many accounts an early convert to Christianity around the beginning of the 17th century.
Francis's Jesuit order and their Franciscan brothers were evangelising the region and created settlements that gave unusual autonomy to local indigenous people.
According to tradition, Jose was carrying a load of wood back to his settlement when he spotted a rival group that was fighting the incursion of Christianity and killing converts.
He hid behind a tree and prayed to the virgin, promising to carve a statue of her out of it if he was not spotted.
His escape is considered the first of many miracles in what would become the religious centre of this poor nation of 6.8 million sandwiched between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.
Today, many in Caacupe and across Paraguay give credit to the virgin for miracles, which range from help finding a job to beating a disease.
The Argentines who travelled to Paraguay to see 'their' Pope know well of his long-term love affair with their northern neighbour.
As archbishop and Pope, Francis he frequently has praised the fortitude and faith of Paraguay's women, saying they should be awarded the Nobel peace prize for what they did for their country.
"Francis loved Paraguayans and we do too," said Carmen Mesa (56) who made a pilgrimage on foot from Clorinda, Argentina, to Caacupe for the Mass.
"Argentina is his homeland. He is not coming home yet, so we brought it to him."
Francis decided to skip Argentina on his South American pilgrimage, not wanting to get involved in the country's upcoming presidential election.
He plans to go back home for the first time next year on a trip that will take him also to Chile and Uruguay.