In in his first public Mass at the 2013 World Youth Day global gathering of Roman Catholic young people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Pope Francis hit upon already-familiar themes of his papacy. He urged Christians to have hope and joy and to reject material things as a source of ultimate satisfaction, which is found only in faith.
To chants of “Vivo Papa Francisco!” and songs dedicated to him, Pope Francis helicoptered on Wednesday, July 24, to the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, about 150 miles west of Rio.
The trip to the shrine is part of the pope’s busy agenda for WYD 2013, which includes visits to a hospital, slums, and a prison; it concludes with a papal Mass on Sunday.
An estimated half-million young pilgrims braved a chilly drizzle on Copacabana Beach to attend the opening Mass on Tuesday night, which featured the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro but not Francis. The 76-year-old Argentinian-born pontiff was taking a day of rest to recuperate from the flight and his arrival motorcade on Monday, which was frequently mobbed by exuberant crowds.
The chilly rain continued on Wednesday at Aparecida, but the pope again traveled in Brazil’s version of the popemobile, with a front windscreen but no side panels. This allowed the pontiff to, as is his custom, kiss several babies handed up to him by his dark-suited security detail from the crowd (which were at a safe distance behind barricades).
The shrine honors the mother of Jesus and also commemorates a local legend from October of 1717: three fishermen from a small city in the Paraiba River valley set out to gather fish for a party. Because it wasn’t a good time to fish, they prayed to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, asking for her intercession to obtain God’s help in filling their nets.
After several fruitless hours, they cast the nets one last time, and, instead of fish, hauled up a small, headless statue. Casting the net again, they pulled up the statue’s head. After cleaning the pieces, they realized the two-foot-high terracotta figurine was an image of Mary (which has darkened over time due to properties of the clay and the burning of candles) believed to have created by a local monk.
They wrapped the statue in cloth, and then proceeded to haul in a catch that almost swamped their boat.
Brazilian Catholics, particularly Afro-Brazilians, came on their own to venerate the image until eventually a shrine was built to house it, which is now visited about 11 million times per year.
Our Lady of Aparecida, also considered the patroness of Brazil, is an example of what the Catholic Church calls “popular devotions,” the spontaneous growth of affection by the faithful for an event (like a healing or an apparition), a holy person, or an iconic object that draws them into prayer and brings them closer to Christ.
Not part of the Church’s official liturgy, many of these devotions remain just folk customs perpetuated by their devotees, but some, like the Virgin of Aparecida, are accepted by the universal Church. In Brazil, the Church celebrates her feast day on Oct. 12, which is also a national holiday.
Catholics revere Mary as first among God’s creatures, born without Original Sin (which is what “Immaculate Conception” means) to be the vessel “full of grace” that brought Jesus into the world, and as an example of motherly love, devotion and discipleship.
The Church interprets Jesus’ admonition to the “beloved disciple” (generally considered to have been the Apostle John) at the foot of the Cross that he should now look upon Mary as his mother to also represent Christ’s gift of her as a mother to all the faithful.
Much as someone might ask a friend or relative to pray for them, Catholics ask Mary for her prayers in a variety of situations. By honoring her, they recognize her unique place in human and salvation history.
Removing his glasses, Pope Francis gazed upon the little statue for some time with tears in his eyes and a solemn look on his face. After reading a prayer, he brought flowers to Our Lady, touched the frame around it, and made the sign of the cross. The pope has a great love for the Virgin Mary, to whom he has entrusted his papacy and the success of World Youth Day.
The pope then celebrated Mass in the shrine – during which a local cleric explained that he would receive a copy of the statue as a gift – and one of the Scripture readings was about the wedding feast at Cana.
As outlined in the Gospel of John, “When the wine ran short, Mary said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour is not yet come.’ His mother told the servers, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'”
According to the Gospel, Jesus then turned large jars of water into fine wine so the young newlyweds would not be embarrassed in front of their friends and family.
In his homily, Pope Francis referred to the wine image, saying, “Let us trust God! Cut off from Him, the wine of joy, the wine of hope, runs out. If we draw near to Him, if we stay with Him, what seems to be cold water, difficulty, sin, is changed into the new wine of friendship with Him.”
He also called upon Christians to maintain trust and hope in God, warning, “It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”
Francis also urged Christians to allow themselves “to be surprised by the new wine which Jesus offers us; we have joy in our hearts and we cannot fail to be witnesses of this joy.”
He reminded listeners, “God is at our side. We have a Mother who always intercedes for the lives of her children.”
The pope concluded, “Dear friends, we have come to knock at the door of Mary’s house. She has opened it for us, she has let us in and she shows us her Son. Now she asks us to ‘do whatever He tells you’ (Jn 2:5). Yes, dear Mother, we are committed to doing whatever Jesus tells us! And we will do it with hope, trusting in God’s surprises and full of joy. Amen.”
In remarks after the Mass, Pope Francis announced he would be returning to Aparecida in 2017, which is the 300th anniversary of the fishermen’s fateful trip.