Pope Francis put into practice his insistence that the world's poor not be left on the margins of society by visiting a flood-prone slum outside Asuncion on Sunday on the final day of his three-country South American tour.
Residents of the Banado Norte shanty on the banks of the Paraguay River shrieked as Francis walked by, reaching out to touch his white cassock and snap a photo with their cellphones.
"Now I can die peacefully," said Francisca de Chamorra, an 82-year-old widow who moved to the shanty in 1952. "It's a miracle that a pope has come to this muddy place."
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, Francis saw people living in shacks made of plywood and corrugated metal. A few weeks ago, pigs were 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.
Many residents of Banado Norte are squatters on municipal land who have come from rural areas in the northeastern part of the country where farms are increasingly dedicated to soy and often bought up by Brazilians and multi-national companies. Residents argue they should be given title to the land because they have worked to make it habitable with little help from the city.
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 on Saturday evening. "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.