ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Paraguay is the last stop on Pope Francis’ week-long barnstorming tour of Latin America, but in the mind of the pontiff it’s by no means least – especially, perhaps, in terms of his ardor for the country’s women.
Indeed, Francis seems to have a love affair going on with Paraguayan women. It’s completely chaste, unfolding on the moral and spiritual plane, but no less real.
For one thing, Francis visited the shrine of Our Lady of Caacupé on Saturday, a Marian devotion so dear to him that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires he paid annual visits to a mostly Paraguayan slum in the Argentine capital city to celebrate her feast.
According to the local bishop, before the Mass begun, Francis was so overcome with emotion that the start of the celebration had to be delayed for a few minutes.
In November 2010, while the image of the Virgin of Caacupé was passing through Buenos Aires, the future pope said that “she’s twice as glorious, for being the mother of God and for being Paraguayan.”
As then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said there’s not a single Paraguayan who does not venerate the Virgin of Caacupé.
Beyond that devotion, Francis is also a deep admirer of the Guarani women of Paraguay for the role they played during and after the 19th century War of the Triple Alliance, one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in the history of Latin America.
From 1867 to 1870, Brazil, Uruguay, and Francis’ native Argentina united against Paraguay, killing more than 1.2 million people and leaving the country with one man for every eight women. As a result, they became the driving force in a nation that had lost almost 90 percent of its pre-war population.
In 2010, the future pope praised the Paraguayan woman, calling her the most glorious of the Americas.
“Not because she has studied more than women from other nationalities,” Bergoglio said at the Cathedral of Buenos Aires, “but because Paraguayan women knew how to adapt in a country sundered by injustice and international interests.”
“With all these obstacles,” he said, “she carried forward the development of the country, its language and its faith.”
In 2014, when he was already the head of the Catholic Church, he went as far as nominating the Paraguayan woman for the Nobel Peace Prize for “saving the country.”
“It was heroic! I nominate her to the Nobel Prize!” he said, talking to Carlos and Rodolfo Luna, two Argentine friends who were visiting him at the Vatican.
He came at it again on Saturday.
“Here 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,” he said to the thousands gathered in the Marian shrine located 25 miles from the border of his native Argentina.
When he refers to the women of Paraguay, he’s not thanking them only for being wives and mothers, but for being the lifeblood of those who rebuilt the life, faith, and dignity of an entire nation.
“Like Mary, you lived through many difficult situations which, in the eyes of the world, would seem to discredit all faith,” he said. “Yet you continued to believe, even ‘hoping against all hope.’”
Today’s women in Paraguay, however, want Francis to do more than just talk about them. They hope he’ll inspire a change in society as a whole.
Elizabeth Duarte, 32, a stay-at-home mother of four, said she hopes that during the visit the pontiff will address the issue of domestic violence. She wants him to ask the government to call for the enactment of a comprehensive law against violence toward women.
Mabel Vera, 17, a high school student, told Crux that for her, fighting for female rights in Paraguay means achieving equal wage and a respect for women that goes beyond the public rhetoric to “behind closed doors.”
The prevention of violence inside the family, she said, begins with education.
“For some, it might seem an obvious thing, but sometimes we need for someone to spell it for us: A man can’t hit his wife,” Vera said.
Every year, statistics say, more than 20 women are killed in Paraguay by their male partners. Moreover, women’s salaries in relation to men’s are the second-lowest in Latin America, despite the fact that women make up 74 percent of Paraguay’s labor force.
On top of that, as a result of a weak legal response, domestic violence is far more common in Paraguay than in other Latin American countries. Although there’s a law from 2000 with a broad definition of domestic violence, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, it’s civil in nature and as such does not provide criminal sanctions.
In general, many observers believe Francis has a mixed record on women’s issues as pope.
Beyond saying he’d uphold the Catholic Church decision not to ordain female priests, he’s called female theologians “the strawberry of the cake” and has expressed his desire for a more active role for the woman in the church.
He’s also backed equal pay for equal work for women, calling it a “Christian duty” to fight to make sure that women receive equivalent compensation for doing the same jobs as men.
At the same time, however, he has not appointed many women to high-profile positions, and some find his rhetoric on women’s issues occasionally anachronistic and patronizing.
The fact remains that some of his strongest words on the subject were spoken on the plane back from a trip to Brazil, in 2013, when he voiced admiration of the Paraguayan woman.
“The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework …” Francis said at the time, adding that there isn’t a “truly deep theology” of women in the Church.
“We talk about whether they can do this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of [global Catholic charity] Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women,” he said.
“For me, the Paraguayan woman is the most glorious of Latin America,” Francis said again on that occasion in 2013.
Two years later, women in this small Latin American nation are hoping the country’s men are listening.