Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida is the holiest site for Catholics in Brazil and much of Latin America, and featured in Pope Francis’s visit to Brazil earlier this year.

See gallery of photos from my trip to Aparecida at the end of the text below.

Located more or less halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, it is easily accessibly by intercity bus, and is free of charge to visit. The bus from São Paulo’s Tietê bus station is around R$37 and takes between two and 2.5 hours.

The place is often likened to France’s Lourdes, and is a tourist hotspot, seeing as many as 9 million tourists a year. However, we visited on a Wednesday and it wasn’t crowded at all.

At the centre of the Aparecida story and its rise to prominence is a small 18th-century clay statuette of Our Lady of Aparecida, just 40cm tall, which legend has it was found in the 18th century in a nearby river by three fishermen after they invoked the Virgin Mary. They went on to catch a lot of fish.

The fact that it is a dark-skinned Mary is of great importance to some Brazilian Catholics. You can read more of the background of Aparecida here, including about how the statue was destroyed in 1978 and meticulously put back together. A replica of the statue was also publicly vandalised by an Evangelical Protestant on television in 1995.

My first impressions were that it was Catholic Disneyland: you are greeted by a fun fair, a visitor centre, an aquarium, children’s rides and inflated prices for everything from ice cream to the plethora of tacky statuette replicas, crucifixes and other Catholic novelties.

Even when you first get inside the basilica, it feels very new and modern. And it is, of course. The Basilica isn’t even technically finished, after being started in 1955 and inaugurated in 1980 by Pope John Paul II. It isn’t exactly Canterbury Cathedral.

However, once you level with the place – you can see some that quiet church-like dignity. Some of the design is very modern and in-your-face, but parts of it are also subtle and stylish.

It is a very open place – with services ongoing throughout the day. Although I’m not a Catholic, my partner’s mother got stuck right in to one of the services, where audience participation was clearly very much welcomed; she was soon microphone in hand next to the pastor.

It is a peaceful and, thankfully, cool place, given it was nearly 35°C outside.

Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener.

With the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day (WYD 2013) set to arrive in Rio, the city has seen pacification operations in favelas at the base of Corcovado Mountain.

Rio’s 33rd Police Pacification Unit (UPP) will establish a permanent presence in the area and should improve security not only for local residents, but for tourists visiting the world-famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue.

On Monday, 420 special forces and military police, including elite BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) tactical teams, entered three favelas under Corcovado, site of the thirty-meter-tall Christ statue.

Police say they occupied the Cosme Velho communities of Cerro-Corá, Guararapes and Vila Cândido quickly with no gunfire or arrests. The new UPP, with 190 military police, should be operational within a month.

Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral said the communities would no longer become a refuge for criminals and that the new UPP would “offer security and peace to residents.”

Police had monitored Cosme Velho for information about traffickers and other criminals that had been flushed there from previously-pacified favelas.

Cosme Velho is the location of the Trem do Corcovado (Corcovado Train), which takes tourists to Christ the Redeemer, and military police were at pains to show that the occupation would afford tourists visiting the statue greater safety, particularly during WYD on July 23rd-28th when Catholics from around the world will gather.

“The Pope’s visit and the increased influx of tourists are why we went in. Intelligence showed that criminals were sheltering here. Now they’ve lost the territory,” military police spokesperson Col Frederico Caldas said.

WYD 2013 will be the first major overseas mission for Pope Francis; it is the first time the event has been held in Brazil and only the second time in Latin America. Special police training exercises have been staged to represent a number of scenarios, including the well-trodden tourist route to see the statue.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.