Pope Francis, in a massive ceremony Saturday, praised the women of Paraguay who, as the “lifeblood” and “keepers of the memory,” resuscitated a country devastated by war.
It was the pope's second reference to the War of the Triple Alliance, a 19th-century conflict considered one of the deadliest in Latin American history and one that still informs Paraguayan identity.
At least 70% of Paraguay's male population was killed, and the nation would have ceased to exist if not for the perseverance of women, historians say.
“Then and now, you found the strength not to let this land lose its bearings,” Francis said, addressing the women of Paraguay. “God bless your perseverance, God bless and encourage your faith, God bless the women of Paraguay, the most glorious women of America.”
He spoke at Paraguay's most important Catholic shrine in Caacupe, a word in the native Guarani language that means “hide behind the forest,” a warning that, legend holds, Mary gave an indigenous man named Jose, who was being chased by enemies who wanted to kill him because of his conversion to Christianity. The appearance of Mary, mother of Jesus, saved Jose’s life, according to the legend.
In contrast to the pope's portrait of the “glorious” women of Paraguay, however, the country suffers high rates of violence against women and unwanted teenage pregnancies. About 20% of Paraguayan women reported abuse by partners in a 2014 World Health Organization study, and of those, nearly half reported getting pregnant against their will.
Still, the pope’s message resonated with an enthusiastic audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The War of the Triple Alliance pitted Paraguay against a powerful coalition formed by Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. It may be that hearing an Argentine-born pope acknowledge Paraguay’s suffering was especially significant.
Outside the packed Caacupe sanctuary and basilica, Paraguayans of all ages filled the streets and a nearby plaza. They spoke Guarani among themselves and then watched in silence as Francis said Mass in Spanish, then took communion from priests who spread out among the crowd.
Maria Gonzalez wept quietly as she held one of her five daughters in her arms.
“This moved me very deeply,” said Gonzalez, 40, a social worker. “It is so important to us to hear that the Paraguayan woman is unique. … When the war came here, the women stepped forward to defend and save Paraguay. It was women who rebuilt Paraguay.”
Juan Irrasabal, a 22-year-old medical student, said he was inspired by the pope's vigor and engagement with the people.
”It makes me proud to see a man of his age be so alive in body and spirit. It shows the power of spirit,” he said after the Mass. “We have come and seen him, but instead of just seeing him now the challenge is to put what he said into action.”
Portions of the Mass were said in Guarani, an official language of the small, landlocked country, along with Spanish. Paraguay is the most Roman Catholic country in South America and one of the most conservative. It has been ruled by the same Colorado Party for most of its modern history, with the exception of a brief period when Fernando Lugo, a former priest, was president until unseated in an impeachment process that neighboring countries labeled a coup.
Later Saturday, the pope spoke to grass-roots organizations, continuing his message of inclusiveness and heeding the call of the poor.
Special correspondent Bevins reported from Caacupe and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Mexico City.