So Who Is Our Lady Aparecida?

As He was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, "Come after Me, and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed Him. - Matthew 4:18-19

Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We also will come with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?" They answered Him, "No." So He said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. - John 21:3-6

On Wednesday, a day after the kick-off of World Youth Day 2013 in Brazil, Pope Francis set the tone by entrusting the six-day celebration to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary.

He did so during a visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida, the largest Marian shrine in the world, where he also celebrated Mass and venerated the miraculous image of Mary.

So what's the story of Our Lady Aparecida? It involves fishermen seeking a catch.

In 1717, the Governor of São Paulo, Brazil was passing through a small city in the Parnaíba River Valley called Guaratinqueta, and the local people wanted to throw a celebration in his honor. So three men went to bring back fish from the Parnaíba. They were having no success at all until they asked the Immaculate Conception for help.

The next cast of the net drew up the body of a wooden statue of Our Lady, the Immaculate Conception. The cast after that brought in the head of the statue - and then they began to catch fish aplenty. The statue is a deep brown color from long immersion in the mud of the river, a detail that allowed the oppressed minorities of Brazil to especially identify with Our Lady of Aparecida (translation: Our Lady "who appeared"). To clarify, there was no Marian apparition at the site. The statue is simply remembered as the image of Our Lady that appeared in the fishermen's time of need.

Devotion to Our Lady of Aparecida has grown over the centuries from a local tradition to her present role as Patroness of Brazil. The shrine was the site of a 2007 meeting of all the Latin American bishops under the leadership of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who is now Pope Francis. That meeting produced the landmark Aparecida Document, which many have called the charter of Pope Francis' pontificate and one of the key documents in developing a more evangelical, mission-oriented version of Catholicism.

"Anyone who is a man or a woman of hope - the great hope which faith gives us - knows that even in the midst of difficulties God acts and He surprises us," said Pope Francis in his homily at the Shrine on Tuesday. "The history of this Shrine is a good example: Three fishermen, after a day of catching no fish, found something unexpected in the waters of the Parnaíba River - an image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Whoever would have thought that the site of a fruitless fishing expedition would become the place where all Brazilians can feel that they are children of one Mother?"

For more information on the Aparecida Document, see here.

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