Our Lady Aparecida — The Real Madonna of the Amazon

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What with all the kerfuffle over the Pachamama carvings, I wonder why Our Lady Aparecida has been so overlooked. At World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil, Pope Francis made sure to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida, the second-largest Marian shrine in the world.

Consecrated in 1980 by Pope John Paul II, the Shrine can hold up to 45,000 people, and is the third-largest basilica in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

The story of the Shrine began on October 12 in the year 1717, when the Count of Assumar, Dom Pedro de Almeida, and the Governor of São Paulo were passing through Guaratinguetá, a small town in the Parnaíba River Valley. The people of the town wanted to hold a feast for them.

Three fishermen, Domingos Garcia, Filipe Pedroso and João Alves, went down to the river. Unfortunately, after hours of fishing, they had nothing to show for it

The fishermen were about to give up, but decided to try one more time, praying to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for assistance.

João’s net caught the body of a small terracotta (clay) statue of Our Lady; the next cast drew in her head. Then they were inundated with fish for the feast, reminiscent of John 21:3-6.

As He was walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed Him.
Matthew 4:18-19

The fisherman named the statue Nossa Senhora da Aparecida Conceição, Our Lady of the Conception Who Appeared from the Waters.

For fifteen years, the statue resided in the house of Filipe Pedroso, visited by his friends and neighbours. In 1732, he gave it to his son Atanasio, who built a small chapel for Our Lady in Itaguaçu. In 1745, a larger building was constructed, but the masses of pilgrims necessitated the establishment of an even larger shrine — by 1888, approximately 150,000 pilgrims were arriving every year. In 1822, Pedro I declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal and elevated Our Lady Aparecida’s title to Patroness of Brazil. On September 8, 1904, Pope St. Pius X declared Our Lady Aparecida to be Queen of Brazil; the Cardinal of Rio de Janeiro crowned her.

Our Lady Aparecida, once honored simply in local devotion, is now officially the Patroness of Brazil, declared so by Pope Pius XI through a papal bull of 16 July 1930, signed by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII). Her feast is so important that it has been a public holiday in Brazil since 1980, with a ten-day festival. Children’s Day in Brazil is celebrated on the same day; it also coincides with the date of the European discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to visit Our Lady Aparecida, during his Apostolic Visit to Brazil in 1980. The Holy Father observed:

What were the ancient pilgrims seeking? What are the pilgrims of today seeking? Precisely what they were seeking on the day, more or less distant, of Baptism: faith and the means of nourishing it. They seek the Sacraments of the Church, particularly Reconciliation with God and Eucharistic nourishment. And they set off again strengthened, and grateful to Our Lady the Mother of God and ours.

The little statue is a deep brown from being long submerged in the river mud, and has been further darkened by candle smoke throughout the centuries. This pigmentation helped the indigenous peoples and African slaves brought to Brazil to identify with Our Lady Aparecida, seeing her as their loving mother who would listen even to the request of simple fishermen in their hour of need.

On May 13, 2007, the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops (known by its Spanish acronym CELAM) gathered at the Shrine for their Fifth General Council. Then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), was elected to lead the committee which drafted the final document for the Aparecida conference.

This became known as the Aparecida Document, calling for a continental mission, for the Church to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples. They recognized how Marian devotion has long been crucial in uniting Latin Americans across tribal and national boundaries; indeed, how Our Lady unites Catholics across the globe.

Mary, Mother of the Church, and model and paradigm of humanity, is shaper of communion. One of the fundamental events of the Church is when the “yes” sprang forth from Mary. She draws multitudes to communion with Jesus and His Church, as we often experience at Marian shrines. Hence, the Church, like the Virgin Mary, is mother. This Marian vision of the church is the best antidote to a merely functional or bureaucratic Church.
~ Aparecida Document, 268

Three of Pope Francis’ most important promulgations – Evangelii Gaudium (2013) on the Joy of the Gospel, Laudato Si (2015) on Care for Our Common Home, Amoris Laetitia (2016) on Love in the Family – echo the message of the Aparecida Document, calling for a more evangelical, mission-oriented Catholic faith. It has been said that the Aparecida Document is key to his papacy.

In Pope Francis’ 2013 homily at the Shrine, he said:

Anyone who is a man or a woman of hope – the great hope which faith gives us — knows that even in the midst of difficulties God acts and He surprises us. The history of this Shrine is a good example: Three fishermen, after a day of catching no fish, found something unexpected in the waters of the Parnaíba River — an image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Whoever would have thought that the site of a fruitless fishing expedition would become the place where all Brazilians can feel that they are children of one Mother?”

The parish of Santo Antonio (Saint Anthony) of Guaratinguetá was also home to the first Brazilian-born Catholic saint, Friar Anthony of Saint Anne (Frei Galvão), who was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on May 11, 2007.

From this humble village, named for the white herons (gûyra tinga) which flocked by the river, we have one of the greatest treasures of the Church, a spiritual home for the Amazon, a place where Our Lady draws her children ever closer to Her Son, Jesus Christ.

The Virgin Mary is a splendid image of configuration to the Trinitarian project, which is fulfilled in Christ. From her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption, she reminds us that the beauty of the human being is entirely in the bond of love with the Trinity, and that the fullness of our freedom is in the positive response that we give it.
~ Aparecida Document, 141

Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.”

They said to him, “We are going with you also.” They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing.

But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?”

They answered Him, “No.”

And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish.

~ John 21:3-6

Photos: Salesians; Catholic Miracles; Wikipedia (1, 2) / PD-US

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a Singaporean living in Australia. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after university. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She has also written at Aleteia, MercatorNet and The Daily Declaration.

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