Pope leaves for Rome after South America visit

Pope Francis departed Paraguay for Rome late Sunday, bringing to a close a weeklong visit where he drew attention to the poor and marginalized in some of the region`s poorest nations.

After also visiting Ecuador and Bolivia, delivering some two dozen speeches and saying several masses, the 78-year-old pope and the Vatican`s delegation boarded an Airbus A330 in Asuncion and left the country.

His three-country visit centered around speaking out against poverty, inequality and corruption. He also made numerous historical pronouncements and railed against ideologies.

One of his last stops at a Paraguay slum underlined his show of support for some of the most destitute communities in already poor countries.

While Paraguay, a nation of some seven million people, has seen rapid growth in recent years, 40 percent of the population remains mired in poverty.

The community the pope visited, Banado Norte in the capital Asuncion, is where many residents ended up living there after being displaced by corporate agricultural land buys in other parts of the country.

Residents of Banado Norte are technically squatting on municipal land but want the right to stay. The pope appeared to directly address the issue.

"I couldn`t be with you without being on your land. Your land," he emphasized.

The pontiff stopped at several homes to visit with and bless families living there.

"I shuddered for a moment and got goose bumps and did not know what to say," said Carmen Sanchez, 50, who had prepared some traditional food.

Neighbor Silvia Sanchez told AFP: "I just hope that after this visit, the government will provide the assistance needed here."

The conclusion of the pope`s visit was thrown into confusion when a crowd surged toward his vehicle, preventing him from making a stop to hold a ceremony with the relatives of 400 people killed in a fire in 2004.

The pope said a blessing at the damaged building instead and continued to the airport.Francis said mass Sunday at a nearby military base, where huge crowds had gathered in muddy fields to hear the pontiff speak on a stage decorated in bright, swirling patterns made from thousands of ears of corn.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said about one million pilgrims had come to hear the mass, in which a solemn-sounding pope encouraged followers to pursue love, not selfishness.

"It is about turning from the path of selfishness, conflict, division and superiority, and taking instead the path of life, generosity and love," the pope said.

Among the worshipers were Cristina Kirchner, the president of Francis`s native Argentina, and Paraguay President Horacio Cartes.

The pope`s visit, his ninth trip abroad, has been notable for a number of historical pronouncements.

On Saturday, the 78-year-old pontiff decried the scourge of corruption as the "gangrene of a people." Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in South America and graft is rampant here, though the pope stressed the problem was worldwide.

He has also railed against ideologies, and 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 Saturday, and must be extended to "each citizen, without exclusion."

He urged political leaders not to "sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit."

Francis, in a historic gesture of reconciliation, sought forgiveness Thursday from Bolivia`s predominantly indigenous inhabitants for crimes committed centuries earlier in the name of the Catholic Church.

"There have been many very serious crimes committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God," the pontiff said.

Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay are predominantly Catholic and have been marked by a long history of poverty and inequality, especially afflicting indigenous populations.

Lombardi, the spokesman, said Francis was well at the end of his trip, but "tired like the rest of us."

Francis heads back to the Vatican later Sunday and will return to Latin America in September, when he travels to Cuba before heading to the United States.

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