Pope Francis had a full schedule this past Saturday, but that didn’t stop him from adding unplanned events. After celebrating the first Mass of his visit to Paraguay at the Marian Shrine of Caacupé, he broke protocol—not for the last time—visiting the Divine Providence Clinic, which provides care for terminal cancer and AIDS patients. The clinic was founded 15 years ago by Father Aldo Trento, an Italian missionary of the Communion and Liberation movement. Trento received official recognition for his work from the Paraguayan Parliament just a few months before the papal visit.
From there, Pope Francis headed to Leon Condou Stadium in the city of Asención. There, nearly 5,000 people awaited him: representatives of civil society including politicians, social leaders, businessmen, students and workers from the countryside.
The best of Paraguayan beauty, art and creativity was on display; many people consider these the cultural heritage of the education in the faith imparted centuries ago in the Jesuit "reductions," mentioned by the Pope in his words at the event.
The Pontiff had the chance to appreciate the musical talent of the Orchestra of Recycled Instruments (whose instruments are fashioned from trash from a local landfill). Despite the humble origins of their materials, they were able to perform moving classical pieces in their full splendor for the Pope and the multitude in attendance.
Near the end of the encounter, a girl gave Pope Francis one of her violins: garbage transformed into a beautiful musical instrument. "This is in complete harmony with what Pope Francis says about existential peripheries and the culture of waste," affirmed Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office.
That was not all; in addition, one of Paraguay’s most prestigious ballet companies, the Dance School of the City of Asunción, directed by Miguel Bonnin, performed a part of his classical dance piece "Francesco," about the saint whose name was chosen by the Pope. The work beautifully portrays the story of St. Francis’ relationship with "sister nature" and his final encounter with God.
Bonnin, one of the greatest masters of ballet in Paraguay, has already created other works related to the beauty of the faith, such as "Spiritual Exercises," dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, and "Roque Marangatu," to St. Roque Gonzalez of Santa Cruz.
The performance ended on a highly emotional note when the main dancer who interpreted the role of St. Francis drew near to greet the Pope, who embraced him warmly amid the applause of the overflowing stadium.
In response to questions posed by representatives of different areas of society, such as young people, businessmen, workers from the countryside and indigenous people, the Pope added profound and spontaneous reflections of deep human and social content to his prepared words. This provoked the applause of all those present. The Pope addressed a clear and concise message to them all, whatever their diverse social and ideological tendencies.
"Don’t say that the Pope said that to so-and-so; rather, say that he said it to me," the Pope indicated at the end of his words, before giving his blessing.
Earlier, the Pope had been received by the General Secretary of the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference and the prelate in charge of Laity and of Communication, Bishop Adalberto Martínez, as well as by the rector of the Catholic University "Our Lady of the Assumption," Father Narciso Velázquez. That university’s youth choir closed the event at the stadium with a performance.
Next, the Pope headed to the Cathedral of Asunción, where he prayed Solemn Vespers with the priests and with consecrated men and women. The Cathedral of Asunción was one of the first in Río de la Plata. It was first built in the 16th century, though the current construction dates from the mid-18th century.
To bring this intense day to a close, the Pope once again made a visit that was totally unscheduled, going to Christ the King Parish and School to pray before the relic of the heart of Roque González of Santa Cruz. St. Roque, the first Paraguayan saint and a Jesuit martyr, who died in 1628. There, Pope Francis met with his Paraguayan Jesuit friends and more than 400 young people from the school. In a spontaneous message, the Pope asked them to give all their energy in favor of life, not to forget to pray, and to "make noise."
This privileged and blessed group of boys and girls had tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces as they participated in what was a preview of the Pope’s great encounter with Paraguayan youth on Sunday night at Costanera, which would be the closing event of his historic visit to Paraguay and of his first pastoral voyage in Latin America.