By Philip Pullella and Mariel Cristaldo
CAACUPE, Paraguay (Reuters) - Pope Francis praised Paraguay's women for rebuilding their nation from the ashes of war in the nineteenth century in a mass at the country's most sacred religious site on Saturday.
Thousands of Argentines crossed the border to see their native son, nearing the end of a "homecoming" tour of South America in which he has urged the downtrodden to change the world economic order, warned of irreversible harm to the planet and walked among prisoners.
Francis visited a children's hospital in the capital Asuncion before moving to Caacupe, about 60 km southeast.
"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," the pontiff said. "God bless the women of Paraguay, the most glorious women of America."
More than half of Paraguayan men were killed in the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870, one of the bloodiest in Latin American history, which Paraguay fought against an alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
Caacupe is famous for a shrine housing a statue of the Madonna said to have been carved by a Guarani convert to Christianity in the 16th century, when missionaries set up in the area.
According to tradition, the Guarani man, a carpenter, hid in a tree trunk to escape warriors from the rival Mbayaea tribe who were killing converts and later carved the statue in gratitude for surviving. Devotees believe the statue to be miraculous because it survived a flood in the 17th century.
"Francis knows that Caacupe is the highest expression of spirituality in Paraguay," said Antonio Gamarra, 66, who camped out for a day to see the pope. "We can endure hunger, cold and rain because faith protects us from everything."
Large crowds lined the roads leading to the basilica that houses the statue, among them Argentines who waved the country's blue and white colors.
Some held up a banner reading "Estamos Haciendo Lio" (We're making a mess"), a reference to Francis telling Argentine young people during his visit to Brazil in 2013 to go back to their country and shake things up.
Saturday's mass before hundreds of thousands of worshippers was slightly delayed after the pope was "overcome with emotion", a bishop said.
The pope on Friday urged Paraguay to consolidate democracy and end corruption and drug trafficking.
More than a fifth of all Paraguayans live in poverty.
"I hope Francis brings us some blessing, especially for our government, so that it put an end to corruption which takes its toll on the humble and the poor," said Elisa Vazquez, who traveled 400 km to see the pope.
(Editing by Richard Lough and David Holmes)