Pope Francis on Saturday visited Paraguay'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 tiny, landlocked Paraguay, 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. ... God bless the women of Paraguay, the most glorious women of America,'' he said.
Thousands of people packed the main square and nearby streets at Caacupe, about 50 kilometers from Asuncion, the capital. Argentina's blue-and-white flag and its national team soccer jersey were ubiquitous among the 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 designated the simple church, which houses a little wooden statue of the virgin, as one of the more than 1,600 minor basilicas throughout the world.
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.
On Sunday, the 78-year-old pope will visit a poor neighborhood of Asuncion, before celebrating Mass before a crowd of up to 1 million people. That event will bring to a close the pontiff's eight-day tour of Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay.