ASUNCION, Paraguay – On his last full day in South America, Pope Francis gave a rousing speech urging Paraguayans to work towards peace, equality and justice, saying they were not abstract concepts but concrete things.
Speaking largely off-the-cuff to a crowd of civic and political leaders that included the president of Paraguay, Horacio Manuel Cartes Jara, Francis pleaded for rapid, “distinct and clear justice” to be administered in Latin America and beyond.
Paraguay has been criticized for impunity in the judicial sector, together with lengthy pretrial detentions and delays. The country has also come under fire for its harsh prison conditions.
The pope also said that “corruption is the gangrene of a country,” adding that it happens throughout the globe. Paraguay is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 150 out of 174 by Transparency International.
Francis received a raucous response when he quipped, “I am not a soccer referee,” in an apparent reference to the corruption scandal rocking the sport.
Once again, the pope appealed for a just economic system, asking the assembled civic leaders “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
The meeting began with a musical performance by a children’s group from a poor community, who played instruments made out of trash.
A married gay rights activist was in the crowd, invited by the Paraguayan Bishop’s Conference, organizers of the event. Pope Francis has reiterated his opposition to gay marriage, and while still in Argentina, opposed the passing of laws that legalized it.
Still, the formal invitation of a gay rights activist to a papal event is an indicator of greater openness towards gays, and Francis has repeatedly called for an inclusive church which embraces everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of pilgrims showed up for Pope Francis’ first mass in Paraguay, held at the country’s most important shrine, Our Lady of Caacupe, 30 miles outside of the capital, Asuncion.
Many pilgrims had shown up the night before, braving the intermittent rain, sleeping under tents to get a good spot.
Among them were many Argentinians who had crossed the border to be here, some waving blue and white national flags and chanting, “Argentina, Argentina.” Many more of Pope Francis’s countrymen, as well as Argentinian president Cristina Kirchner, are expected at a large mass in Asuncion on Sunday.
According to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, Francis had insisted on going to this shrine because he has a “personal connection to the Virgin of Caacupe thanks to his pastoral work.” When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Pope ministered to a shantytown inhabited by many Paraguayan immigrants. About 200 of them traveled by bus to Caacupe to celebrate mass with their former pastor.
Upon arriving at the shrine, the pope stood in silent prayer, then placed a white rose at the base of the statue of the Madonna.
During his homily, the pope paid homage to the role that Paraguayan women played in rebuilding the country after a bloody war with neighboring countries in 1864-1870 decimated the male population, leaving a 4-to-1 ratio of women to men.
Calling them “the most glorious women of America,” Francis told them, “You are the keepers of the memory, the lifeblood of those who rebuilt the life, faith and dignity of your people.” The pope’s words were met with a big applause.
Acknowledging the strong indigenous influence in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Pope recited the Lord’s Prayer in Guarani, an indigenous language. Women dressed in traditional costume performed the Polka Kyre’y, a traditional dance.
On his way to the mass, the pope visited a pediatric hospital in Asuncion, stopping to speak with some of the most seriously ill children. He told them, “We need to learn from you. We need to learn from your trust, your joy, and your tenderness… from your strength, from your remarkable endurance.”
During his lunch break, he visited a clinic for the terminally ill poor, the Fundacion San Rafael. The clinic’s director cried as he described how Francis kissed a terminally ill patient who was not strong enough to sit up.
The Pope wrapped up his day with vespers at the Asuncion Cathedral.
On Sunday, Pope Francis ends his nine-day pilgrimage to his native continent by visiting one of the poorest slums in South America, then celebrating mass with a crowd expected to exceed one million people.