Throughout his South American tour, Pope Francis has been traveling in a tiny four-door Fiat Idea Essence, which matches the pontiff’s humble style. On Saturday, however, he dusted off a museum relic: the 1988 Peugeot SR 405 that Pope John Paul II used when he visited here 27 years ago — the last time a pontiff has been in this South American nation.
As the 78-year-old Francis wraps up his three-nation tour, the trip has been full of such singular gestures as he’s been embraced by ecstatic crowds.
On Saturday, after drinking traditional mate tea handed to him by a congregant, Francis visited the Niños de Acosta Ñu pediatric hospital in San Lorenzo, about 19 miles from the capital. The hospital is home to children with cancer and cardiovascular problems.
Nancy Garay, a doctor there, introduced Francis to two girls who had had heart transplants. “They, Holy Father, have been born two times,” she said. “We ask for your blessing.”
After touching the girls’ heads, Francis turned to cardiovascular surgeon Marco Melgarejo, a pioneer of organ transplants in Paraguay.
“For the wonders that you do,” Francis told him, “I bless your hands.”
As he left the hospital, amid a crush of people, two young patients managed to approach him and one gave him a piece of paper: it was his identification and admission slip to the hospital.
“He told me that he was giving me the identification so that I would remember him,” Francis explained to the crowd. “That is the beautiful innocence of children.”
Francis arrived in Paraguay Friday afternoon on an Alitalia flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia visibly tired after three days in Bolivia and another four in Ecuador. He was received at the Silvio Pettirossi International Airport by President Horacio Cartes, as children’s choirs greeted him with song. Once again, Francis broke protocol and called the children toward him. Some wept as they ran past the security barricade to hug the pope.
As he made his way to Asunción in the “popemobile,” hundreds of thousands of people cheered from the side of the road waving flags and holding placards. Earlier in the week, police said they would ban signs referring to abortion, gay marriage or the struggle of landless farmers. “This is not the time to ask the pope for these sorts of things,” Police Spokeswoman Elisa Ledesma explained.
But after a backlash from activists groups, and even the Catholic Church, the signs were allowed and some could be seen peppering the roadside along the pope’s caravan.
The visit to Paraguay marks the closest Francis has come to his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina since becoming pope in 2013. Immigration and transportation authorities said that more than 500,000 tourists had swarmed across the borders — mainly from Argentina — but also from Chile, Bolivia and Colombia.
In his official speech at the presidential palace Friday, Francis highlighted the bravery of Paraguayan women who helped rebuild the country after the nation went to war with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay from 1864-1870.
“I want to recognize with emotion and admiration the role played by Paraguayan women in those dramatic moments in history, particularly the immoral war that almost destroyed the brotherhood of our countries,” Francis said. “Mothers, wives and widows have had to carry the greatest load. They’ve known how to help their families and the country, instilling in the new generation the hope for a better tomorrow. God bless the Paraguayan women, the most glorious of the Americas.”
When he was still a priest in Buenos Aires, then-Father Bergoglio dedicated much of his mission to working with immigrants — primarily Bolivian and Paraguayan.
Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi thanked the Paraguayan people for the pope’s reception saying it was “the best one of the trip.” Referring to the traditional dances that told the nation’s history, he said: “It was truly beautiful and the sky gave its blessing because it was the only moment that it didn’t rain.”
Lombardi also thanked Cartes for giving the pope a gift that was “not compromising.” A few days earlier, Bolivian President Evo Morales gave Francis an allusion to the hammer-and-sickle crucifix that caused an international stir.
When asked about the frequent Vatican visits of Argentine President Cristina Fernández (she’s visited her one-time foe five times since he became pope), Lombardi said it was “common” for Francis to receive presidents, particularly when they’re “from the country of the pope.” Francis has said he will visit Argentina in 2016, after presidential elections are held this October.
On Saturday, Francis held Mass in the city of Caacupé, about 37 miles from Asunción. The city of 48,000 is known as the spiritual capital of the republic and is home to the Virgin of the Miracles of Caacupé, the nations’ patron saint. On Saturday, however, its population had multiplied as hundreds of thousands flocked to hear the Mass.
Unlike the services he gave in Ecuador and Bolivia, where he wove in themes of social justice and ministering to the poor, Francis’ homily stuck to praise for the Virgin and Paraguay’s women.
On Sunday, he will give his final Mass on this trip, and meet with bishops and with the nation’s youth. At 7 pm local time, Francis is scheduled to board the Alitalia flight to Rome, ending what’s being called his Latin America homecoming. And the historic car will return to the Peugeot museum — with a few more miles on it.