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Our Lady of Aparecida helps Pope Francis

2015-02-27 15:01

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Our Lady of Aparecida.  The story is fact, not fiction.  During these days of Pope Francis’ pontificate, we regularly hear references to Aparecida, but who, what, when or where is or was Aparecida?

The year was 1717. Three fishermen struggled unsuccessfully to catch fish in Brazil’s River Paraiba. Deciding to make one last effort, they once again let down their nets.  This time, instead of fish, they discovered a blackened, 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 almost broke.

Why was the statue in the river? Perhaps it was thrown there by Frey Agostino de Jesus, the Benedictine monk who created it in 1650.  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. Both John Paul II and Benedict XII visited this national Marian shrine and 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.

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.  These women include   Sr Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame, who, in February 2005, 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 logging companies and 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 included in that mosaic as a “woman who made a difference”. 

Before he became Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio headed the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM). The “Aparecida Document”, released in 2007, was the final report of their Fifth General Assembly and was a groundbreaking plan to be adopted throughout the area covered by CELAM. It was already being implemented when Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis. The Document’s success, therefore, offered a perfect blueprint for the new pope.

Amongst the many initiatives of the Aparecida Document, three of the most important were, firstly, to recognise popular piety as intrinsic to the “missionary discipleship” of the Church, placed under Our Lady’s care and protection. Secondly, the Church must only plan its future after recognising its historical journey to the present moment. Thirdly, the Church must be prayerfully creative and pastoral in every undertaking.

Our Lady of Aparecida is helping Pope Francis to make a difference.

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