Paraguay's fervor for faith and country
Every year, one million of Paraguay's 6.5 million people go on pilgrimage to a little town in the center of the country to give thanks to the Virgin Mary.
According to tradition, the image of the Virgin Mary at the Paraguayan town of Caacupé was made by Jose, a devout Christian and indigenous Paraguayan whose life was miraculously saved by the intercession of the Mother of God. Jose was from nearby Atyrá, from where he came looking for food and firewood. Unfortunately, he got lost on his way while walking through the valley of Ytu, where was captured and tortured by members of another indigenous group. Thoroughly exhausted, Jose finally managed to escape and took refuge behind a stout tree where he prayed to Virgin Mary to save his life from impending death. The Indians pursuing him passed nearby and did not recognize him, and therefore his life was saved. Convinced that this was a miracle, Jose cut down the tree and took it home, and began carving a sculpture of the Virgin Mary - the Immaculate Conception - to pay tribute for the favors he received.
Later, Jose moved with his family down to the valley, where he built a simple chapel that would gradually attract other people. Thanks to Jose’s chapel, the passion and fervor for religion grew immensely in the nascent town. After the founding of the town of Caacupé in 1770, there was built a larger church as the devotion to the Virgin Mary spread throughout the country, even across international borders.
I recently visited Caacupé at the end of November of this year, accompanied by Martin Barillas, editor of Speronews, as more than one million Paraguayans made the annual pilgrimage to the basilica that has since been built to honor the Virgin. It was there that we witnessed the fervor of Paraguayan's sincere Christian faith. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans visit the basilica in a demonstration of their religious faith and national identity. In a country with a population of approximately 6.5 million, that one million visit every year - on foot, oxcarts, bicycles, or even on their knees - is distinct evidence of the depth of their faith. We witnessed a scene rivaled only by Lourdes, where it was the Virgin Mary appeared to a French girl in the late 1800s. Volunteers helped the disabled and aged to reach the last few yards to the basilica, some of who murmured pious supplications and expressions of gratitude for healings both spiritual and physical. It is on December 8 that Catholics and Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception - the doctrine that holds that the Virgin Mary was free of sin from the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Saint Ann.
The first church of Caacupé, was built in 1885, it remained standing until 1979. This iconic work marked the religious tradition deeply rooted in many Paraguayan generations. Every December 8, Catholics gather at Caacupé in central Paraguay, about 45 miles from the capital city, Asuncion. The first settlements in Caacupé existed since the 17th century, but the city was officially founded in 1770, during the reign of Charles III of Spain. On the feast day, over 300,000 faithful gather in front of the cathedral to hear mass and pay homage to the Virgin of Caacupé, the patroness of Paraguay.
The tremendous growth of religious devotion to the Virgin led Church authorities to decide on the construction of a new cathedral. The architect, Miguel Angel Alfaro and Assistant Bishop Aníbal Mena Porta found the site in 1937, while Alfaro developed the final plans in February 1940. In 1945, Archbishop Juan Sinforiano Bogarín of Asuncion, blessed the foundation stone of the new basilica. The work was suspended in the 1960s, however, and it was Bishop Demetrio Aquino who finalized its construction. On May 18, 1988, Pope John Paul II celebrated a historic Mass and blessed the new home of the Virgin of the Miracles of Caacupé.
Spero contributor Peter M. Tase writes on Latin American business and diplomatic affairs.
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