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 Caacupe, 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 Caacupe.
"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.
As soon as Francis arrived 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 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 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.