Sunday, October 05, 2008


Our Lady of Aparecida. The story happens to be fact, rather than fiction.

The year was 1717. Three fishermen struggled to net fish and caught nothing. They tried again and again, but still without success. Eventually, continuing downstream on Brazil’s River Paraiba, they let down their nets once more. This time, instead of hauling in a net full of fish, they discovered a blackened, sculpted and headless clay statue of the Immaculate Conception. The next time they cast their nets, they discovered the head.

Legend has it that the three men continued fishing, with the same failure until, in desperation, one of them suggested that they pray to Our Lady, under the title of ‘Aparecida’ (who had ‘appeared’ in their nets). Almost immediately afterwards, they caught so many fish that their nets were almost at breaking point.

Who knows how the statue came to be in the river? Perhaps Frey Agostino de Jesus, the monk who had created it in 1650 and who was renowned for his sculpture, threw it there. Who knows? What is certain is that the statue was repaired and kept in the home of Felipe Pedroso, one of the three fishermen.

Over the years, people prayed to Our Lady under her title of Aparecida until today, when she is the Patroness of Brazil, with a massive basilica in her honour in Sao Paolo. It is to this national Marian shrine that Pope Benedict, made his way during his journey to Brazil. Just as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he reverenced the much-repaired 3ft statue, now crowned and clothed in a stiff, richly embroidered cloak. Because of the enveloping mantle, only a very slim section of the actual image is visible these days, so it is hard to see that there was ever any damage. She appears whole once more.

I freely admit that I only learned recently of ‘the Aparecida’. In fact, it was only on researching the background of this shrine for a programme that I discovered the identity of the beautiful statue in the office of Vatican Radio’s Brazilian Programme. She is positioned perfectly so that she looks down on the Brazilians as they work.

During the Pope’s visit to Brazil, all of a sudden, the Aparecida was on everybody’s tongue. The most Brazilian of devotions to Our Lady spread across the world. The reason was beautifully clear. The broken and repaired statue represents a people who have often been broken by sorrow and pain, who struggle painfully to combat poverty, oppression and injustice. The fact that this little image has been repaired, not once, but many times, symbolises for a deeply spiritual nation, the healing that can take place through persistent prayer.

It is, then, entirely appropriate that in the basilica, there is a mosaic of ‘women who have made a difference’ to the people of Brazil. Neither is it any wonder that, amongst them, is a Sister of Notre Dame. After all, in February 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang was gunned down as she took food and clothing to a poor family, deep in the Amazon basin. She died for the healing of the landless peasants, whose homes are regularly burned down by the logging companies and the multinationals that are more interested in making money than in caring for others. She, who faced her hired killers with her Bible and the words of the Beatitudes, is to be included in that mosaic, as a ‘woman who made a difference’...just like our Mother, Mary.

God bless,
Sr Janet