Pope Francis received a very Argentine welcome Saturday at Paraguay's most important pilgrimage site, where thousands of his countrymen joined hundreds of thousands of Paraguayan faithful for a Mass that seemed poised to become a makeshift homecoming for the Argentine pope.
Argentina's blue and white flag and its national team soccer jersey were ubiquitous among the tens of thousands of mate-sipping faithful who packed the main square at Caacupe, which houses a little wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is close to Francis' heart.
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 Nuestra Senora de 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.
Youth groups chanted "Pope Francis, Paraguay is with you!" as they waited for the pontiff to arrive Saturday. Elderly faithful 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.
Maria Luisa Gonzalez, 54, sat with her husband and prayed. She recounted how, when she was 8 years old, she had a terrible stomachache that persisted for a few weeks. The day her parents decided to take her to a doctor, she saw a painting of the Virgin of Caacupe hanging on a street vendor's cart.
"I immediately felt so much better that we didn't go to the appointment," she said. "After that, I believed in the virgin's miracles, and I have been coming every year to give thanks since I was 15."
Tradition 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 unusual autonomy to local indigenous people.
According to lore, 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.