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.
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 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.