The National Shrine Nossa Senhora da Conceição Aparecida, Our Lady of Aparecida, “Queen and Patroness of Brazil” is located between Sáo Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. More importantly, the place is located at the intersection of heaven and earth.
On a typical weekend anywhere between 80,000-150,000 pilgrims arrive – more than a 11 million last year – and this weekend I am one of them. Like pilgrimage sites all around the world, the number of visitors to this Santuário is increasing – in spite of growing secularization. The phenomenon of interest in pilgrimage is something I find fascinating and important to reflect upon. Why are people who do not regularly practice any religion making pilgrimages, particularly to Marian Shrines?
I am in Brazil this whole month. This year we are prioritizing growth of our Family Rosary mission here. Holy Cross Family Ministries (often known locally as The Family Rosary) flourishes best when there is an integration of our mission in the vision of the Congregation of Holy Cross in the country where we serve. Because of personnel limitations here in Brazil, this has not yet fully happened but now we hope to make this more of a reality. It helps that World Youth Day will take place this year in Rio de Janeiro in July.
Hoping for this growth in our mission, I have come to Aparecida to consecrate our work here once more to Our Lady, and to pray intently for her help and guidance!
I began my pilgrimage last night, starting the hundred mile journey from Sáo Paulo and spending two hours just trying to get out of the city. With a population of about 20 million, traffic in São Paulo is horrible. Imagine traffic in New York or Los Angeles, but times three! I was wanting to get into “pilgrimage mode” yet what was coming to me seemed to be anything but. As I was looking for some sense of peace for prayer, the city seemed to epitomize for me the pressure and dehumanizing side of urban life that leaves us feeling numb. Beginning what I hoped would be a few days with the Lord, those forces that leave us crying out “where are you God?” seemed to be on the attack.
Doubt, meaningless fear, and emptiness hover around us today in a peculiar way. I realized that I was being shown in my own experience why people go on pilgrimage. So many may have been distanced from the practice of their faith, making them ever more susceptible to these subtle demons. Yet still there is the yearning for something, knowing there is more: a longing for the sacred. So they go to pilgrimage places.
I had been to Aparecida several times before, so I wasn´t surprised when I arrived at the Shrine to rediscover that this is one of those chosen places where heaven and earth meet. I do not make this up. The Basilica is the second largest church in the world (Saint Peter´s in Rome is number one). This present structure is only about 50 years old, and it is in the final stage of internal ornamentation. It is now becoming a truly beautiful statement of who we are as Church: the Body yet also the Bride of Christ, with Mary as our Mother.
This morning the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, was truly luminous. Distributing communion I could see in people´s eyes that they were seeing what I was seeing. The divine was touching the human and comingling with us. The Lord Jesus Christ was present and acting and once more His Holy Mother was showing Him to us!
But what we recognize in this great mystery of the Incarnation goes further still! These places of pilgrimage chosen in God´s grace exist to help us see this divine-human communion every day – and to challenge forces that want to cut us off from this experience. In his book, The Mystery of the Rosary, Nathan Mitchell, Emeritus Professor of History at Notre Dame, presents how the Catholic Church in Post-Reformation Europe renewed herself so as to be able to proclaim the nearness and the love of the Incarnate God. Already well established in Christian life, the Rosary assumed new significance as the Church stopped being on the defensive. As people meditated on the mysteries of Christ´s life in a deeply personal yet also communal way, the Rosary itself became a simple ever present symbol of the meeting of the divine and human in our everyday life.
We need something like this now! As voices want us to believe that we can count on nothing beyond what our five senses and our little brains can grasp, let the light of Christ shine every day. Each one as he or she is called to do, let’s weave a tapestry with Mary to wrap this lonely world with Christ’s love.
Fr. Jim Phalan, C.S.C., is the Director of Family Rosary International, which is a part of Holy Cross Family Ministries. HCFM was founded by Servant of God Patrick Peyton, a Holy Cross priest who had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother and preached that the “family that prays together, stays together.” Fr. Phalan will be writing for the Spes Unica Blog each month to share with us the great work of Family Rosary International, yet Family Ministries is one of the creative ways that Holy Cross continues to reach across borders of every sort to spread hope. Learn more about the missionary work of Holy Cross.