Pope Francis watches dancers during their performance at the Catholic University in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 11, 2015. Photo by Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters.
ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Pope Francis decried the scourge of corruption as "gangrene of a people" on Saturday in Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in South America and where graft is rampant.
The 78-year-old pope -- in Paraguay on the last stop of a three-nation tour of South America -- also railed against ideologies and hammered home the central theme of his trip to his home continent: equality.
Speaking to an enchanted crowd of 5,000 at a small stadium in the capital Asuncion, Francis drifted away from his scripted remarks, saying that "ideologies end badly, they do not work, they do not take into account the people."
"Look what happened with ideologies in the last century... they ended in dictatorships, always," he added, applause ringing out in response.
In a question-and-answer session, he denounced corruption, which plagues several countries in South America.
But perhaps to avoid offending his hosts, he stressed that it was a recurring problem "among all peoples of the world."
As he had done on previous stops during his trip, first in Ecuador, and then Bolivia, Francis called for an end to poverty -- also endemic in the region -- and lamented today's consumer society.
Wealth creation should not be "only for the benefit of a few," he said to more acclaim, and must be extended to "each citizen, without exclusion."
"In economics, in business and in politics, what counts first and foremost is the human person and the environment in which he or she lives."
- 'Glorious women' -
Earlier in the day, before hundreds of thousands of worshippers at the country's main pilgrimage site, the first pontiff from Latin America praised the sacrifices of Paraguay's "glorious" women during a history marked by war.
Paraguay was left reeling during the so-called War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay fought from 1865 to 1870, with a large majority of its male population killed.
Francis was speaking on the esplanade of the domed shrine of the Virgin of Caacupe, not far from the border with his native Argentina.
"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," Francis said.
"You are keepers of the memory, the lifeblood of those who rebuilt the life, faith and dignity of your people.
"God bless your perseverance. God bless and encourage your faith. God bless the women of Paraguay, the most glorious women of America."
The huge crowd was delighted to hear the pope deliver the Lord's Prayer in Guarani, the language of the country's indigenous people, spoken by 80 percent of the population.
Caacupe, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) east of Asuncion, has become a place of international pilgrimage thanks to a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that has been credited with various miracles.
The vast crowds played guitar, shook maracas and sipped gourds of mate -- the herbal drink beloved by many in the region.
Francis was apparently so moved by their singing that he was late to emerge from the basilica to say mass, but Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi later dismissed any notion that the pope was unwell.
"As you can see for yourselves, the pontiff is fine, everything is ok," Lombardi said.
Thousands of Argentines travelled across the border by bus -- some on journeys lasting 50 hours -- to welcome the pope in a homecoming of sorts.
"The pope has inexplicable powers of attraction, almost like a lover," said Graciela Sosa, adding she had barely slept all night so she could get a prime viewing spot.
- 'Learn from the children' -
At a children's hospital in Asuncion, the pope said: "We need to learn from your ability to fight, from your strength, from your remarkable endurance."
He also made a quick surprise visit to a clinic for the terminally ill.
After visiting Ecuador and Bolivia, Francis arrived Friday in Paraguay, where 90 percent of the population is Catholic, to begin the final leg of his eight-day tour.
Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality, especially afflicting indigenous populations.
Francis heads back to the Vatican on Sunday, after an open-air mass in Asuncion.
He will return to Latin America in September, when he travels to Cuba before heading to the United States.
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