A million faithful throng Paraguay town for Pope's visit

Pope Francis arrives at the Marian Shrine of Caacupe to deliver mass.
Pope Francis arrives at the Marian Shrine of Caacupe to deliver mass.AFP

CAACUPE, Paraguay (AFP) - About a million worshippers packed the Paraguayan town of Caacupe on Saturday to see Pope Francis, who is wrapping up a three-country South America tour in which he has repeatedly spoken up for the poor.

The Pope, 78, paid special tribute to Paraguay's women, largely left widowed and orphaned during the War of the Triple Alliance from 1865 to 1870, which nearly decimated the male population.

"I would like especially to mention you, the women, wives and mothers of Paraguay, who at great cost and sacrifice were able to lift up a country defeated, devastated and laid low by war," Francis said.

"You are keepers of the memory, the lifeblood of those who rebuilt the life, faith and dignity of your people."

Caacupe has become a place of international pilgrimage thanks to the presence of a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that has been credited with various miracles.

On the esplanade in front of the Caacupe basilica, delighted crowds played guitar, shook maracas and sipped gourds of mate - the herbal drink beloved by many in the region.

Francis, who is from Argentina, is not visiting his home country on this trip but thousands of Argentines came by bus - some on journeys lasting 50 hours - to welcome the Pope in a homecoming of sorts.

Francis has not returned to his home country since his election as pope in March 2013, but could travel there on an official visit in 2016.

"Being here with you makes me feel at home, at the feet of our Mother, the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupe," Francis said.

'LEARN FROM THE CHILDREN'

Earlier Friday, Francis visited a children's hospital in the Paraguay's capital Asuncion.

"We need to learn from you," the Pope told the kids.

"We need to learn from your trust, your joy, and your tenderness. We need to learn from your ability to fight, from your strength, from your remarkable endurance."

After visiting Ecuador and Bolivia, Francis arrived Friday in Paraguay, where 90 per cent of the population is Catholic, to begin the final leg of his eight-day tour.

In Caacupe, about 55km east of Asuncion, thousands spent the night outdoors ahead of the papal visit and about a million people had come to the town, a national police official told AFP.

The Pope's tour has burnished his reputation as a powerful voice for the downtrodden and he has repeatedly called on leaders to address inequality.

His trip to Paraguay marks the second papal visit to Asuncion after John Paul II in 1988 - just one year before dictator Alfredo Stroessner fell, making way for democracy.

Francis begins his trip back to the Vatican on Sunday.

Paraguay is home to the main base of South America's Jesuit mission and Francis is the first Jesuit pope.

Adding to its Catholic credentials, the country elected a bishop, Fernando Lugo, to the presidency in 2008. He served in office until 2012, when he was kicked out in a coup.

Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality, especially afflicting indigenous populations.

Beginning in the 1500s, Spanish conquerors, with the blessing of the Church, subjugated and enslaved indigenous peoples in the Americas, annihilating native cultures and forcing their conversion to Christianity.

Before heading to Paraguay, Francis ventured into a violent, overcrowded and gang-ridden Bolivian prison that houses children living with their parents.

He hugged and kissed inmates and urged them not to yield to the "devil".

Francis will return to Latin America in September, when he travels to Cuba before heading to the United States.