CAACUPE, Paraguay – Few countries are as devoutly Catholic as Paraguay, and no place in this South American nation means more to believers than the shrine of the Virgin of Miracles in Caacupe, where Pope Francis is to celebrate Mass on Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands turn out each December to worship before the little wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, who wears a crown over her long hair, with a billowing white robe and a blue cloak.
"I've heard incredible and marvelous stories of people who believe they have experienced a miracle," said Desire Cabrera, a Caacupe-based reporter for ABC Color, a leading Paraguayan newspaper. "Some say they have been cured of a disease, or that miraculously they have found a job."
Lore has it that the 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 were both evangelizing the region and created settlements that gave local Indians unusual autonomy.
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 center of this poor nation of 6.8 million sandwiched between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.
While Christianity is under siege by secularism and evangelicals in much of the hemisphere, Paraguay remains overwhelmingly Catholic. Eighty-nine percent here profess the faith, according to the Pew Research Center.
The country's indigenous roots remain powerful as well. Even wealthy Paraguayans of European lineage take pride in speaking Guarani, and Francis is likely to emulate the example of Pope John Paul II, who used that language to greet the faithful in 1988.
"I was so moved when Pope John Paul II said in Guarani, 'I love you all,'" said Jorgelina Rojas. "Now when I see Francis I'll be praying that he works a miracle so that my 14-year-old daughter, who was born deaf, can (learn to) speak."
Caacupe, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Asuncion, has 48,000 residents, many of whom make a living by catering to visitors.
On a recent day, another woodworker, Isabelino Maidana, was putting the finishing touches on a wooden chair topped with an intricately painted image of the Virgin that Francis will use during the Mass.
He also made a chair for the previous papal visit and it's on display in a museum inside the basilica.
Maidana said he felt blessed for "having made sure that two popes sat comfortably in Caacupe."
Around the square before the basilica, vendors sell food, Paraguayan flags, small paintings of the Virgin and shirts imprinted with the pope's face in anticipation of the Mass, which will be a day after his arrival in the country.
In the air are smells of chipa, a traditional bread made of corn flower, cheese and beef fat. Vendors also pass around terere, a popular Paraguayan version of mate tea.
"The pope must try chipa and terere," vendor Isabel Ledesma said in Guarani.
Most likely Francis has tried both.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires in neighboring Argentina, the Rev. Jorge Bergoglio, as he was known before becoming pope, often visited a poor area where many Paraguayan immigrants live.
In the neighborhood, called Villa 21, Bergoglio would sometimes wash the feet of the poor and celebrate Mass at a church frequented by Paraguayans: Our Lady of Miracles of Caacupe.