Pope Benedict wrapped up his five-day trip to Brazil celebrating Mass this morning at the sanctuary of Aparecida, followed up in the afternoon by a strong speech to open the fifth meeting of Latin American and Caribbean bishops, the main reason for his trip to this country. At the meeting which will continue until the end of May, bishops representing 22 countries will discuss strategy for the future of the church in this continent, home to nearly half the world's Roman Catholics.
The pope arrived in Aparecida yesterday after spending three days in Sao Paolo where he canonized the first native-born Brazilian saint, Friar Galvao, an 18th-century Franciscan who dedicated his life to charity and the poor. Throughout Pope Benedict's visit to the "continent of life and hope," the pope focused on reinforcing church doctrine on moral and social issues in his speeches.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, the chosen site for the meeting of bishops from this region, is the most important Catholic religious site in Brazil. An average of more than 7 million pilgrims visit this shrine each year and it is one of the most popular shrines to the Virgin Mary in the world behind often visited shrines in Guadalupe, Mexico, Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal.
Aparecida is home to the huge red-brick basilica and the three-foot-tall statue of a black Virgin Mary called "Our Lady Who Appeared," the patron saint of Brazil. The statue was found in the river in the 18th century by four fishermen who were having no luck fishing. After they found the statue, they began catching tons of fish. Numerous miracles were subsequently attributed to the statue and with so many pilgrims flocking to the Aparecida site since then, a basilica was built and it was inaugurated as a shrine in 1955. Pope John Paul II consecrated the shrine on his visit here on July 4, 1980.
The modern basilica, which rivals the Vatican's Basilica of St. Peter in size, towers over the small town of dilapidated houses perched on a hill. A winding pedestrian bridge carries the faithful back and forth to and from the town which is brimming with stalls selling gaudy religious souvenirs, cheap knick-knacks and local fast food. There is also a shabby theme park called "Aparecida Magic, Cultural, Religious and Recreational Park" next to the shrine to entertain the large number of pious Brazilian families with small children that descend on the town for the holy feast day.
At this morning's Mass, the pope spoke to a crowd of about 200,000 people. Sixteen-year-old Marcella Garces drove down from Rio de Janeiro with her parents, arriving at 5 a.m. to get a good look at the new pope. "It is the first time he has come to Brazil and I wanted to see him close up," she told ABC News and she did. His popemobile passed right by her when he arrived at the site of the Mass this morning. "I am very happy, I saw him very well."
Not many in Brazil have had the chance to see this pope close up though, the pontiff's schedule included few events that brought him close to the people. Most Brazilians are proud that he chose Brazil for his first visit to Latin America but he is still an unknown "persona" here. Although Brazilians have been curious to see this new pope on his first trip to their continent, the crowds that have received him have been smaller and markedly less enthusiastic than the ones that greeted his predecessor Pope John Paul II in the past.