ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Pope Francis will put into practice his insistence that the world’s poor not be left on the margins of society by visiting a slum outside Asuncion on the final day of his three-country South American tour.
Francis has spent much of the past week — and before that much of his pontificate — railing about the injustices of the global capitalist system that he says idolizes money over people, demanding instead a new economic model where the Earth’s resources are distributed equally among all.
In Banado Norte on Sunday, Francis will see people living in shacks made of plywood and corrugated metal, and quite possibly pigs rummaging through garbage searching for leftovers. Authorities estimate that about 15,000 families there live in extreme poverty, periodically exacerbated when heavy rains burst the banks of the nearby Paraguay River, turning dirt roads to impassable pools of mud.
For weeks, residents in the area and authorities have been preparing for the visit, doing everything from draining some of the roads to making rosaries to give the pope as gifts.
But Francis is expected to offer them his solidarity and encouragement, after having urged their leaders to do more to take their plight into account in making decisions about development and social welfare.
“Putting bread on the table, putting a roof over the heads of one’s children, giving them health and an education – these are essential for human dignity, and business men and women, politicians, economists, must feel challenged in this regard,” Francis told a gathering of business leaders, politicians, labor union leaders and other civil society groups. “I ask them not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
After touring Banado Norte, Francis will celebrate an open-air Mass in a tropical field outside Asuncion and meet with young people before returning to Rome.
While celebrating Mass on Saturday in Caacupe, Francis lauded the strength and religious fervor of Paraguayan women while visiting the country’s most important pilgrimage site.
“Being here with you makes me feel at home,” Francis said in his homily. He then spoke affectionately about the women of this tiny, poor and 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 in Caacupe, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Asuncion.
“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.”
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.
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.
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