Our Lady of Aparecida: The one who appeared

September 10, 2013

Few Marian apparitions have made the international news cycle this past year like Our Lady of Aparecida, patron saint of Brazil. 
The story of the dusky statue of the Immaculate Conception was the backdrop of Pope Francis’ first international visit to the Americas for World Youth Day. 

In a visit to her shrine, the Pope celebrated the first public Mass of his trip, entrusting the global event and all of the people of Latin America to her prayers. He drew lessons from the apparition for the Brazilian bishops about the Church and God’s mystery and revelation. He also promised to return to Brazil in 2017 for the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of La Aparecida, which means the one who appeared.

This apparition is different than the otherworldly visitations of the queen of heaven. Mary did not materialize in a mirage of shimmering radiance, she did not melt hearts with her motherly smile, nor did she speak. Rather, she appeared as a blackened, broken statue that was pulled from the Paraíba river bottom in 1717 by desperate fishermen.

Tradition tells the story of these humble fishermen who were commissioned by their village to provision a grand feast for a visiting dignitary. They had had no luck at all and were worn out. They turned to the Blessed Mother for help. They cast the net and pulled up the decapitated body of a clay figure. The next cast yielded the head. They wiped down the pieces and joined them together to find the statue was of the virgin herself.

The next time they cast the nets they pulled up more fish than they could haul to shore.

In a reflection on La Aparecida shared with the Brazilian bishops, Pope Francis said that God appeared on the scene where he was perhaps no longer expected. “The patience of those who await him is always tested,” he said.

God, as always, entered clothed in “poverty and littleness,” the pope said. 

“His own beauty, reflected in his mother conceived without original sin, emerges from the darkness of the river. In Aparecida, from the beginning, God’s message was one of restoring what was broken, reuniting what had been divided. Walls, chasms, differences which still exist today are destined to disappear. The Church cannot neglect this lesson: she is called to be a means of reconciliation,” he said.

A fisherman wrapped up the three-foot statue and took her home. Neighbors came from all around to venerate “the one who appeared,” entrusting their deepest needs and hopes to her care. Miracles occurred. The number of pilgrims grew. A church was built.

Pope Francis expressed his admiration for the fishermen, who were not afraid to embrace the mystery of the dark Virgin. Rather than throw the body of the statue back into the river, they awaited the completion of God’s message. “There are pieces of the mystery, like the stones of a mosaic, which we encounter, which we see. We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church also has to learn how to wait.”

One of the fishermen kept the statue of the virgin in his home for 15 years, before a chapel was built. The statue is believed to have been made around 1650 by a monk from Sao Paulo, though no one knows for sure how it came to rest at the bottom of the river.

In 1834, construction on a Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Aparecida began, drawing so many pilgrims that a town sprang up around it. Aparecida, Brazil is located about 100 miles northeast of Sao Paulo. About a century later, a new, larger Basilica was built to welcome thousands upon thousands of believers. 

Today, it vies with Marian shrines in Mexico City, Lourdes, France and Fatima in Portugal as among the world’s most visited, with some 11 million pilgrims. It is also considered the world’s largest Marian shrine in terms of size. 

The feast day of Our Lady of Aparecida is celebrated on October 12, a national holiday in Brazil.