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.