Caacupé, Paraguay (AP) – Pope Francis received a very Argentine welcome Saturday at Paraguay's most important pilgrimage site, with thousands of his countrymen joining hundreds of thousands of Paraguayan faithful for a Mass that served as a makeshift homecoming for the Argentine pope.
Argentina's blue and white flag and its national team soccer jersey were ubiquitous among the mate tea-sipping faithful who packed the main square and streets surrounding it at Caacupé, which houses a little wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is close to Francis' heart.
At the start of his homily, Francis made clear he was among friends.
"Being here with you makes me feel at home," he said.
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 Caacupé.
"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 Caacupé 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 Luján, the patron saint of Argentina. "Faith unites borders. And we wanted to unite the virgins," she said of the Caacupé and Luján 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.
As soon as Francis arrived in Caacupé, he paused for a moment of silent prayer before the Caacupé 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 Saturday, many of them spending the night in tents or under the stars to try to get 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 Caacupé because Francis always talked about it when he was in Argentina," said José Demetrio Barrionuevo, 50, who came with his wife and four children from Tucumán, 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 Caacupé virgin was carved by a Guarani man named José, 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, José 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, the last time a pope visited.
For years, Francis has had a self-professed soft spot for Paraguay. That affection was on display Friday afternoon as he arrived in Asuncion on the final leg of his three-nation tour of South America's poorest countries that included Ecuador and neighboring Bolivia.
He praised the Paraguayan women who were so critical to the country's recovery from a regional war in the 1860s that wiped out more than half of the population, most of it male. He encouraged Paraguay's moves toward a stable democracy and economic growth after the violent 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. And he called for "unceasing efforts" to crack down on corruption.
His message on Saturday was expected to be more pastoral, joining the thousands of pilgrims who travel to Caacupé each year to pray before the icon of the Madonna. He may see some familiar faces: Some 200 Villa 21 residents traveled days by bus to greet their former pastor at the Caacupé shrine so dear to them both.
"There are kids, adults, families," the trip organizer, the Rev. Lorenzo de Vedia, said in Buenos Aires earlier this week. "The pope is someone who is very loved here, for the people of the villa he's one of them because we shared first communions, confirmations, baptisms."
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed that Francis insisted on going to Caacupé "because he has this personal connection to the Virgin of Caacupé thanks to his pastoral work" in Buenos Aires.
For faithful braving the cold Friday night, that Francis chose to come to Paraguay was a blessing.
"Other family members have experienced miracles, but I haven't yet," said Arsenio Franco, a 24-year-old police officer. "I want to see the pope, and I hope to live a miracle."