In almost every part of Brazil – churches, homes, cars, stores, restaurants, and schools - you will find an image of Our Lady of Aparecida. It is an image of a black figurine of Mary, adorned in a sparkling blue shawl. She is the patroness of Brazil, and the original image of her is kept in the National Shrine of Brazil, two hours out of Sao Paolo.
The longer I was in Brazil, the more I was told by numerous people that I needed to visit the shrine. I reluctantly agreed, and was amazingly surprised by the entire experience.
I have been joking with my hosts these past two week about the character of Brazilian churches. The chalky pink and blue colors, mixed with white trim, gave many of the churches the appearance that they belong on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Well… if Brazilian churches resemble edifices in the Magic Kingdom, it is safe to say that Our Lady of Aparecida is the “Disney World Resort for Brazilian Catholics.”
Brazilian Catholics. The name is almost a redundancy, and at the same time, almost an oxymoron.
Anyone who does not have a formal religious choice is considered Catholic, and everyone who is Catholic goes to church… at least when they are baptized, receive First Communion, and maybe on Christmas or Ash Wednesday, if they feel like it. I have not kept a secret my impressions of Brazil. There are many problems that the life of the Church that the faithful are facing. It seems as if every country that I have visited in which there is a strong religious majority in the society, hypocrisy reigns. But, in Brazil, there is also a great sense of devotion. I was a little overwhelmed by it to be honest.
Aparecida is a massive shrine in the middle of a Brazilian sierra, and all around the shrine, in every direction, are busses parked for at least 500 meters. I said it was like Disney World? That impression first came to me when I saw the amusement parks lining the parameter of the parking lots of the church. After Mass, Families with young children gleefully shout as the carousels and roller coasters buzz to and fro. To enter the Basilica from one side, pilgrims have to walk along a skyway path that is about 500 meters long. The skyway leads to a series of restaurants and hotels that are a major industry for the town, and there are people everywhere, selling and buying candles that are two meters in length, which will be offered in pursuit of Mary’s intercession. It really is a sight to behold.
If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view the pictorial I made of the National Shrine by clicking here.
The pictures I took in the crypt museum of the Church demonstrate the tremendous devotion the people of Brazil have. The entire basement of the church is lined with license plates, replicas of homes, and prosthetics. These gifts were left in the devotionals of the shrine as thanksgiving for miracles received. At the same time, there are wax replicas of hands, cars, babies, arms, and legs, all offered as a candle offering, asking God for help and assistance (respectively for their hand, car, baby, arm, or leg). The entire ceiling of the basement is lined with 4x6 pictures of persons who feel their life has been miraculously changed by the intersession of Our Lady of Aparecida. I repeat. The entire ceiling of the basement is lined with pictures of persons who feel their life has been miraculously changed by the intersession of Our Lady of Aparecida.
And this entire Disney World-like complex is built over a tiny little figure of Mary, that looks something like an oversized doll that a child would play with. It is incredible!
As for myself, I was in the back of the Basilica for an entire Mass, mostly dancing through my own thoughts. I still don’t understand enough Portuguese to connect with the readings or homily. Instead, I did what I should have been doing the whole week. I prayerfully considered what to do next during this pilgrimage.
I know that I have a flight to Paraguay tomorrow. No big deal. Not really. It is just another flight, but I also know that when I get on that flight, I’ve committed myself to another four months of work. I essentially lose my quick ticket back to the United States.
Going on means I’ll find more slums to visit, more strange foods, more poverty, more loneliness. I won’t have the same bed for more than a fortnight, and will live in constant anxiety about my health, possessions, and passport. On one level, why should I endure that? On another level, how can I not go on? Sure I have to experience a little discomfort, but that is nothing in comparison to the lives that many have to live. To be so overly concerned about my own needs seems a bit selfish. I have so much in the United States. What is four more months to me without those comforts? But that’s a defeatist’s attitude toward a vocational choice. A person should never commit to something out of manufactured complacency.
In all the many thoughts I have had about going on, I’ve been a little unfair. I’ve been mostly concentrating on my needs. That has been a little one sided. It wasn’t until I stood… and stood… and stood in the Mass in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida that I ever asked what God wants me to do.
As I stood… and stood… and stood in the shrine, I experienced something I have felt many times before, a quiet moment of surrender. I realized… This isn’t my trip. This isn’t my choice. This is God’s plan, and God’s mission. God and I have agreed to this plan through numerous conversations over the last two years. If I were to do this on my own volition, my own strength, my own power, I would never have gotten this far, and I it would be impossible to go father.
Going on isn’t a choice, it is a surrender. For my part, I’ve voiced my concerns to God, and God has responded with the gift of quiet, relaxation, and peace. I’ve never been abandoned in this process, I’ve only been too selfish to listen to God continue to prompt me and encourage me.
Coming to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida certainly gave to me a more complete picture of what the life in the Church is like in Brazil. For this I am grateful. I am more pleased, however that it helped me recognize where I stood… and stood… and stood on this last day of my discernment period. If I don’t continue on through South America, there will be a significant part of the Church that I will have missed.
Brother Nilto and I frequently had to dodge people as we walked back to the car through the parking lot. “I only wish we had come when there were more people here.” He prompted.
“I would say that eight Masses in one day with full capacity and a parking lot full of busses qualify as a busy day. Don’t you think?”
“Yes… but today was very small in comparison. It is only a Sunday. The feast days are much better attended.”
I’ll have to take his word for it, because I personally felt crowded by those gathered to worship. I appreciate a great deal the enthusiasm the Brazilian people shared with me, but I most appreciated the opportunity to take some pause, and recall that it is not I who chose God, but God who chose me.
Inspired, and a bit refreshed, it is time to move on.