CAACUPE, Paraguay — Pope Francis lauded the strength and religious fervor of Paraguayan women on Saturday while visiting the country's most important pilgrimage site, where thousands of his fellow Argentines joined with hundreds of thousands of local faithful to welcome Latin America's first pope.
"Being here with you makes me feel at home," Francis said in his homily. He then spoke affectionately about the women of this 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 soccer jersey were ubiquitous among the mate tea-sipping faithful.
The gathering at the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Caacupe was evidence of Francis' special affection for the revered image of the Virgin Mary. He declared the simple church, which houses a little wooden statue of the virgin, the world's newest basilica.
When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal 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.
"It's wonderful that the pope really knows us," said Raquel Amarilla, 39, who cried throughout the Mass and was accompanied by her 13-year-old daughter. "We are the ones in church every Sunday. We pray every day, much more than men."
In a deeply symbolic nod to the region's indigenous people, Francis led the faithful in "The Lord's Prayer" in Guarani. His arms outstretched at the altar, Francis read along as the crowd intoned the prayer.
Secularism and the increasing influence of evangelism are encroaching on adherence to Catholicism in the region, but Paraguay remains overwhelmingly Catholic. Eighty-nine percent here profess the faith, according to the Pew Center.
At the end of the Mass, officials announced that Francis had designated the Caacupe sanctuary as a minor basilica, giving it an elevated status that signals its connection to Rome and its importance for the local church. There are four major basilicas in Rome, and more than 1,600 minor basilicas throughout the world.
The Argentines who traveled to Paraguay to see their pope know well of his long-term love affair with their northern neighbor. As archbishop and pope, 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 along with a half dozen other Argentines 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."
Mesa's group carried on their shoulders a statue of Our Lady of Lujan, the patron saint of Argentina. "Faith unites borders. And we wanted to unite the virgins," she said of the Caacupe and Lujan virgins.
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. He did fly through Argentine airspace en route from Bolivia to Paraguay — the closest he's been to home since his 2013 election.
The pope arrived Friday afternoon in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion on the final leg of his three-nation tour of South America's poorest countries that included Ecuador and neighboring Bolivia.
As soon as Francis arrived Saturday in Caacupe, he paused for a moment of silent prayer before the Caacupe Virgin and left a white rose on its base.
Youth groups chanted "Pope Francis, Paraguay is with you!" as they waited for the pontiff to arrive, many spending the night in tents or under the stars to secure a good spot. Elderly people periodically kneeled on the cement to pray. During periodic bursts of rain, the faithful pulled out plastic ponchos and umbrellas, passing around sweets and sipping on mate tea to stay warm.
But by the time the Mass began, a brilliant sun was shining under blue skies, rewarding those who had traveled from near and far to see Francis.
"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. The family — with the kids aged 8 to 18 sporting national team jerseys — planned to attend Francis' final Mass on Sunday at a military base in Asuncion as well.
"We want to spend as much time as we can with Francis," 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' Jesuit order and their Franciscan brothers both were evangelizing the region and created settlements that gave unusual autonomy to local indigenous people.
According to lore, 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 center 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.
During Saturday's Mass, Liselda Rojas, 44, stood with her daughter Maria, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Maria's old wheelchair had rusted wheels, making it hard to Rojas to push it. The two spent all night on the square, eating leftovers from a garbage can. Rojas said she didn't have a job and was a single mother.
"I always ask for miracles for her," said Rojas, referring to her daughter, who smiled shyly but couldn't speak. "It was a miracle for me to have her. It's a miracle we are surviving. And it's a miracle that we are here with the pope."
Winfield reported from Asuncion, Paraguay.