(Roughly one million people are expected to cross the borders the pontiff travels to Asunción, officials estimate
BUENOS AIRES—Like many Paraguayan immigrants living in Argentina, 62-year-old Elvira Giménez has packed her bags and is heading north to Paraguay to see Pope Francis this weekend. She will be part of what is expected to be the biggest border crossing for any event in the region’s history.
Between 800,000 and 1.2 million people could cross the border between Argentina and Paraguay to see the pontiff, according to immigration officials in both countries. Most will be Argentines seeking to get closer to Francis, a fellow countryman. Argentine President Cristina Kirchner will be there too.
About a fifth of the roughly one million Paraguayan immigrants estimated to be living in Argentina will also make the trip, officials say.
This pilgrimage, with both Argentines and Paraguayan residents of the country packing into cars and boarding buses at the Retiro station here, is expected to dwarf the exodus to the World Cup in Brazil last year, when 300,000 people crossed the border over a one-month period to support Argentina’s national team as it advanced to the final game.
“This is truly historic,” said Guillermo Mazars, deputy director of Argentina’s immigration service. “I don’t think we’ve ever had such a large number of people travel in such a short period of time.”
The pope’s trip to Paraguay is the last in his weeklong tour, which included Bolivia and Ecuador. To handle expected traffic and bottlenecks, Argentina has opened new border control offices and quintupled the number of immigration checkpoints on route to Clorinda, a border-crossing town in the lush but sometimes hot and dry province of Formosa.
Health officials in Paraguay are taking precautions to deal with unexpected infectious outbreaks amid concern that the influx of people could overwhelm the infrastructure of the poor, landlocked country.
Hotel rooms, churches and event centers in and around Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, are fully booked. Some travelers say they plan to camp out in sleeping bags and tents. Event planners are telling people to bring essential goods, such as mosquito repellent, for what forecasts say could be a stormy, wet weekend.
Ms. Giménez, who works in the hardware industry and has been living in Argentina for more than two decades, isn’t concerned about such logistical hurdles.
“What most interests me is to see the pope bless Paraguay. It’s a poor country and it needs his blessing,” Ms. Giménez said as she boarded a bus loaded with Paraguayans for a trip that would take her 800 miles to Asunción. There, just outside the capital on Saturday, Francis is expected to address a crowd that could total as many as two million people, says Rodolfo Serafini, the cultural attaché at Paraguay’s embassy in Argentina.
The pontiff has long had a special relationship with the Paraguayan people, says Father Lorenzo de Vedia, better known as “Padre Toto,” who heads the Virgin of Caacupé parish in Buenos Aires.
The parish is a bustling center of community life in the Villa 21, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Buenos Aires. It is home to an estimated 60,000 people, mostly Paraguayan immigrants and their descendants. Before moving to Rome, Francis spent a lot of time in the slum performing baptisms and confirmations. Residents say the worship of Paraguay’s national patroness, Our Lady of Caacupé, reinforced a sense of shared identity across the Villa 21.
Padre Toto and other priests are leading a group of around 400 faithful on buses to see the pope.
“The Villa 21 is like a province of Paraguay located in Argentina. The pope was very involved with the parish,” Padre Toto said. “People consider him a neighbor. So when we heard he was visiting Paraguay we felt like he was visiting our barrio too.”