Vatican City, 24 July 2013 (VIS) – The Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, patron of Brazil, was the scene of the first public Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on the American continent. The Pope wished to include a visit to this sanctuary, of great importance to Brazilians and to Catholics throughout the continent, on the itinerary for his apostolic trip on the occasion of World Youth Day.
The story of Our Lady of Aparecida dates back to 1717 when, after several fruitless attempts at fishing in the River Paraiba, three fishermen cast their net and pulled it back to find a statue of the Virgin, without a head. Upon their next cast they found the head of the statue. Casting the net a third time, they brought it to shore full of fish. The statue, to which the 'miraculous' haul was attributed, remained for fifteen years in the house of one of the fishermen, and his neighbours gathered there to pray the Rosary. With the grace received, devotion to Our Lady Aparecida gradually spread throughout the various regions of Brazil. In 1734 a Chapel was built, and construction of the existing “Old Basilica” began in 1834. The image of the Virgin was crowned in 1904, and in 1929 Pope Pius XI proclaimed Our Lady Aparecida the “Queen and patron of Brazil”. The bishops and redemptorist missionaries initiated the construction of the existing “New Basilica”, the world's largest marian structure, in 1955, and it was blessed by John Paul II during his apostolic voyage to Brazil in 1980. The sanctuary is visited by over seven million pilgrims each year. On 13 May 2007 Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated in Aparecida the work of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which established pastoral guidelines for the continent for the coming years.
Pope Francis arrived at the shrine at 10.00 a.m. (local time; 15.00 Rome time), where he was welcomed by the rector. He went to the Room of the Twelve Apostles to pray for a minute before the image of Our Lady of Aparecida. The Holy Mass – which was attended only by the bishops of the province, as the prelates of World Youth Day were engaged in the catechesis sessions in Rio de Janeiro – began at 10.30 a.m.
The Holy Father began his homily by recalling that, on the day following his election as Bishop of Rome, he went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome to entrust his ministry to the Virgin. This time he has come to Aparecida to “ask Mary our Mother for the success of World Youth Day and to place at her feet the life of the people of Latin America”. Afterwards, referring to the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, in which he participated, he said that “something beautiful took place here. … I saw how the Bishops – who were discussing the theme of encountering Christ, discipleship and mission – felt encouraged, supported and in some way inspired by the thousands of pilgrims who came here day after day to entrust their lives to Our Lady. That Conference was a great moment of Church. It can truly be said that the Aparecida Document was born of this interplay between the labours of the bishops and the simple faith of the pilgrims, under Mary’s maternal protection. When the Church looks for Jesus, she always knocks at his Mother’s door and asks: “Show us Jesus”. It is from Mary that the Church learns true discipleship. That is why the Church always goes out on mission in the footsteps of Mary”.
He continued, “Today, looking forward to the World Youth Day which has brought me to Brazil, I too come to knock on the door of the house of Mary – who loved and raised Jesus – that she may help all of us, pastors of God’s people, parents and educators, to pass on to our young people the values that can help them build a nation and a world which are more just, united and fraternal. For this reason I would like to speak of three simple attitudes, … : hopefulness, openness to being surprised by God, and living in joy”.
To explain the first of these attitudes, hopefulness, the Pope spoke about the second reading of the Mass, which presents a dramatic scene: a woman – an image of Mary and the Church – being pursued by a Dragon – the devil – who wants to devour her child. “But the scene is not one of death but of life, because God intervenes and saves the child. How many difficulties are present in the life of every individual, among our people, in our communities; yet as great as these may seem, God never allows us to be overwhelmed by them. In the face of those moments of discouragement we experience in life, in our efforts to evangelize or to embody our faith as parents within the family, I would like to say forcefully: Always know in your heart that God is by your side; he never abandons you! Let us never lose hope! Let us never allow it to die in our hearts! The 'dragon', evil, is present in our history, but it does not have the upper hand. The one with the upper hand is God, and God is our hope!”
“It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols. Dear brothers and sisters, let us be lights of hope! Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality. Let us encourage the generosity which is typical of the young and help them to work actively in building a better world. Young people are a powerful engine for the Church and for society. They do not need material things alone; also and above all, they need to have held up to them those non-material values which are the spiritual heart of a people, the memory of a people. In this Shrine, which is part of the memory of Brazil, we can almost read those values: spirituality, generosity, solidarity, perseverance, fraternity, joy; they are values whose deepest root is in the Christian faith”.
Moving on to the second attitude, openness to being surprised by God, the Pope 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 Parnaiba 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? God always surprises us, like the new wine in the Gospel we have just heard. God always saves the best for us. But he asks us to let ourselves be surprised by his love, to accept his surprises. Let us trust God! Cut off from him, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to him, if we stay with him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with him”.
Finally, the third attitude relates to living in joy. “If we walk in hope, allowing ourselves to be surprised by the new wine which Jesus offers us, we have joy in our hearts and we cannot fail to be witnesses of this joy. Christians are joyful, they are never gloomy. God is at our side. We have a Mother who always intercedes for the life of her children. ... Jesus has shown us that the face of God is that of a loving Father. Sin and death have been defeated. Christians cannot be pessimists! They do not look like someone in constant mourning. If we are truly in love with Christ and if we sense how much he loves us, our heart will 'light up' with a joy that spreads to everyone around us”.
“We have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house”, Francis concluded. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to 'do whatever he tells you'. Yes, dear Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy”.
After the Holy Mass, the Pope appeared on the balcony of the sanctuary to bless the faithful present, and to greet the thousands of faithful and pilgrims who were unable to enter and who followed the ceremony outside under pouring rain. He added a few improvised words in Spanish, promising at the end that he would return to Aparecida for the 300th anniversary of the discovery of the statue of Maria.
“Irmaos e Irmas … Irmaos e Irmas, eu nao falo brasileiro” (“Brothers and sisters, I don't speak Brazilian, ed.”). Forgive me, I will speak to you in Spanish. Obrigado (thank you, ed.) for being here. I thank you from my heart, with all my heart, and I ask that the Virgin, Our Lady of Aparecida, bless you, that she bless your families, that she bless your children, that she bless your parents, that she bless your homeland. Let's see, now I will know if you understand me. I have one question – does a mother forget her children? She does not forget us: she loves and cares for us. Now we ask for the blessing, the blessing of God Almighty. May the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit descend upon you, forever. I ask a favour of you – pray for me, pray for me, I need your prayers. May God bless you, and may Our Lady of Aparecida care for you. Until 2017, when I will return”.
The Holy Father then proceeded by Popemobile to the Missionary Seminary of Bom Jesus, a distance of three kilometres, to have lunch with the bishops of the province and the seminarians. Upon arrival he blessed an image of Frei Galvao (St. Antonio de Santana Galvao, canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in Sao Paulo during his apostolic trip in 2007), which is located in the sanctuary dedicated to the saint in the town of Guaratingueta.
After lunch, the Pope returned to the heliport near Aparecida and from there, returned by helicopter to Rio de Janeiro to visit the San Francisco de Asis Hospital.