Within hours of his arrival in Paraguay, Pope Francis called for the consolidation of democracy in this poor country of 7 million people together with “unceasing efforts” and “a firm will” to fight corruption. He also insisted on the development of an economy that does not exclude, and prayed that this land may never again suffer war.
Francis arrived at Asuncion’s airport after a two-hour flight from Santa Cruz in Bolivia, at 3.00 pm (local time), Friday afternoon, July 10, aboard the Alitalia plane that brought him from Rome. This is the last stage on his historic pastoral visit to Latin America. He has been given a tremendous welcomed wherever he has gone, and judging what we have seen since his arrival the same will be true of Paraguay.
He was greeted with a mighty shout of joy as he appeared at the door of the plane, and was warmly welcomed by the country’s entrepreneur President, Horacio Cartes Jara, and Paraguay’s bishops. The President led him, past a military guard of honor, to a tent-covered stand, where they sat down and watched magnificent performance of song and dance, recounting the country’s history, executed by a wonderful children’s choir - many of them from the indigenous Guarani people that sang in Spanish and Guarani, and a dance troupe.
Fortunately the rain - which had been falling heavily before his arrival, and which had washed out the welcome ceremony for John Paul II when he came here in 1988 – stopped as he stepped off the plane. After the performance, Francis broke with protocol and went to thank the children’s choir. They swarmed around and hugged him, and he kissed and embraced many of them. He also thanked the dancers, much to their delight.
Afterwards, he drove from the airport to Asuncion in his pope mobile, and was cheered along the route by countless thousands of people. Asuncion, one of the oldest cities in South America, was founded on 15 August 1537 – the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven- hence its name. It was one of the first cities to rebel against the Spanish. After gaining independence railroads were built, education was made free for all at elementary level and the indigenous people were given full citizenship. However, the city was occupied by the Brazilians from 1870-76 and life was hard then, but it saw a resurgence between the 19th and 20th centuries with the arrival of thousands of migrants from the Middle East (Ottoman Empire) and Europe. Today, with a population of 1.8 million people (87 percent are Catholic), is the commercial and cultural center of the country.
On arrival in the capital city, Pope Francis paid a courtesy visit to the President at the Palace – Palacio di Lopez. Welcoming him in the presence of the country’s authorities and the diplomatic corps, Cartes spoke of “the immense joy” his presence gives to all Paraguayans. Knowing that Francis had visited the country several times when he was a Jesuit, the President said, “I don’t need to present the country to you, you know it well; its history and its people.” He thanked him for helping so many Paraguayans during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and he praised the Pope’s constant concern for the poor and the needy. He concluded by thanking him for his recent encyclical, which he called “a monument against indifference.” He then invited Francis to speak.
The Argentine Pope began by thanking the President for his “affectionate” words, and said, “it’s not hard to feel at home in so welcoming a land. Paraguay is known as the heart of America, not only because of its geographic location, but also because of the warmth of its hospitality and the friendliness of her people”, he declared. His distinguished audience applauded energetically.
Francis recalled the turbulent history of this country and said, “From the first days of the country’s independence to recent times, Paraguay has known the terrible sufferings brought on by war, fratricidal conflict, lack of freedom and contempt for human rights. How much suffering and death!”
His words referred to what happened after Paraguay gained its independence from Spain in 1811. The historical record shows that it fought a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (1864-70) and was forced to cede a large part of its territory. It fought a second war with Bolivia (1929-35) and gained control of the Chaco. There was a mini civil war in 1947. And though the country has a constitution and an electoral system, power has changed hands more by coups than through the ballot box. There were coups in 1874, 1877, 1880, 1902, 1904, 1911, 1936, 37, 1949. Then in 1954 General Alfredo Storessner established a military dictatorship with the support of the Assoc. Nacional Republiccana-Partito Colorado which remained in power until 1989. But the opposition gained the majority in the elections of 2008 when a civilian president, Fernando Lugo- a former bishop, was elected, but he was deposed in 2012.
Yet in the face of this turbulent history, Francis said “the Paraguayan people have also shown an admirable spirit of perseverance in surmounting adversities and in working to build a prosperous and peaceful nation.“
He paid a special tribute to “the many ordinary Paraguayan people, whose names are not written in history books but who have been, and continue to be, the real protagonists in the life of your nation.”
In particular, he expressed “profound admiration” for the role played by the women of Paraguay in those dramatic historical moments. “As mothers, wives and widows, they shouldered the heaviest burdens; they found a way to move their families and their country forward, instilling in new generations the hope of a better tomorrow. God bless the women of Paraguay!”
He urged the country not to forget its history and said “memory, if it is firmly based on justice and rejects hatred and all desire for revenge, makes the past a source of inspiration for the building of a future of serene coexistence. It also makes us realize the tragedy and pointlessness of war.” At this point, he made a passionate appeal: “Let there be an end to wars between brothers! Let us always build peace! A peace which grows stronger day by day, a peace which makes itself felt in everyday life, a peace to which each person contributes by seeking to avoid signs of arrogance, hurtful words, contemptuousness, and instead by working to foster understanding, dialogue and cooperation.”
Turning from the past to the present, Francis recalled that “for some years now, Paraguay has sought to build a solid and stable democracy” and said “it is proper to recognize with satisfaction progress made in this direction, thanks to the efforts of everyone, even amid great difficulties and uncertainties.” He went onto encourage everyone “to continue working to strengthen the democratic structures and institutions, so that they can respond to the legitimate aspirations of the nation’s people.”
He reminded everyone that “the form of government” adopted by the country’s Constitution is that of a “representative, participative and pluralistic democracy based on the promotion of and respect for human rights” and stated clearly that the country “must banish the temptation to be satisfied with a purely formal democracy.”
In the light of the country’s history, the Pope’s appeal to consolidate democracy is very important. He developed that concept further by insisting that “in every sector of society, but above all in public service, there is a need to reaffirm that dialogue is the best means of promoting the common good, on the basis of a culture of encounter, respect and acknowledgment of the legitimate differences and opinions of others. In the effort to overcome a spirit of constant conflict, convictions born of ideology or partisan interest should blend advantageously with love of the country and its people.”
Then, in another crucially important statement, Pope Francis said “that love (of the country and its people) must be the incentive to increased administrative transparency and unceasing efforts to combat corruption.” Speaking off the cuff, he added, “There must be a firm will to fight corruption!”
His focus on corruption is particularly significant given that Transparency International has ranked Paraguay as the second most corrupt country in South America.
From his days in Buenos Aires and his contact with many Paraguayans living in the shanty towns (“villas de miseria”) Francis knows well what is happening in this country, and so he insisted yet again that “in the desire to serve and promote the common good, the poor and needy have to be given priority of place.”
He acknowledged that Paraguay “has done much to advance along the path of economic growth” and has taken “important steps” in education and health care. At the same time he urged “all social groups” to work “ to ensure that there will never again be children without access to schooling, families without homes, workers without dignified employment, small farmers without land to cultivate, or campesinos forced to leave their lands for an uncertain future. May there be an end to violence, corruption and drug trafficking.”
Aware that some forces in Paraguay push for economic development at any cost, Francis reminded the country’s authorities that “An economic development which fails to take into account the weakest and underprivileged is not an authentic development. Economic progress must be measured by the integral dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable and helpless.”
He assured the President and the civic authorities that the Church in Paraguay is committed to cooperate “in the common effort to build a just and inclusive society where each person can live in peace and harmony.” And he concluded by invoking God’s blessing on the country and its inhabitants.
Pope Francis will be in Paraguay until Sunday, and more than a million people are expected to attend his two public masses here, the first of which he will celebrate on Saturday morning, July 11, at the country’s famous Marian shrine of Caacupé, 40 km from Asuncion.