The celebrations of the three hundredth anniversary of the rediscovery of the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida ended recently. “Mary shows by her silence that the Gospel is proclaimed from the peripheries, the caves and cellars of humanity”.
The rediscovery of the statue by the fishermen Domingos Garcia, Joao Alves and Filipe changed lives. Filipe kept the statue rescued from the depths of the river in his house from 1717 to 1732. Mere fishermen found a statue of Our Lady immersed in water; it was broken, discoloured and grey. This happened on 12 October, 1717.
The statue is just a small sculpture by an unknown artist, probably from the ceramics school of the Benedictine Order. It measures 36 cm in height and weighs 2,550 grams. It has a silver pedestal with designs. It was probably made in the first half of the seventeenth century. To the eyes of the artist and the people of Brazil, it has some noticeable details: the smiling form of the lips that reveal the front teeth, the face with its wrinkles, the carefully arranged hair with braids, the diadem on the forehead, the pleated skirt reaching to the ground, the small joined hands like those of a child, the plain and the refined sleeves, refined, close-fitting and folded in the style of the seventeenth century Paulistas, the original rose colour of the hands and face, worn away and darkened by the smoke of candles and the grey mud in the bottom of the river.
The cult of our Lady of the Conception was already deeply rooted in colonial Brazil and images of Our Lady with joined hands were plentiful. The Aparecida cult is the enigma of an icon that transforms itself and takes the face of the people and its dreams. We are aware that the first printed image of Our Lady of Aparecida, created in 1854, is a photo of Our Lady of the Conception with fair skin. That image was recreated and darkened by poor, black people. It directly reflects their working conditions of suffering and brings hope to thousands of exploited people. Mary always chooses the lowly and speaks their language. A people that loves her makes her go and live in the houses of the poor and, from that theological place, scatters to the four winds the news of this celestial visitation. The statue of the Immaculate Virgin presents a God who continues to want communion, beginning with the lowly. In Mary they discover the signs of a Mother who asks to be put back together, sewn up and rebuilt.
In that first moment, the head was reattached using beeswax. From this union, a Marian people was born that will never leave her. It was united in sorrow and in love by the smile of the Virgin. An immense piety blossomed in the homes and in the processions of the ordinary people. In Mexico, in 1531, we see in the Virgin of Guadalupe a preference for the indigenous people. The Morenita speaks Nahuatl and not Spanish, and wants a sanctuary in the land of the poor and not in the capital Tenochtitlan; that the Bishop. Juan de Zumarraga should come to the periphery of Tepeyac and not the contrary; that the official Church should go to the periphery of the indigenous people and half-castes; that the Church should not build a New Spain but discover in the roots and in the faces of people the authentic America.
In Brazil, for the enslaved blacks and the poor wounded by colonial exploitation, Mary does not present herself as a passively submissive woman; nor does she create an alienating religion. She is the woman able to say no and what she wants according to the will of God. Then the story is repeated in every country of Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Honduras she is the Virgin of the Poor, Our Lady of Suyapa; in Paraguay she is Our Lady of Caacupé; in Cuba she is the Virgin of Cobre; Our Lady of Chiquinquirà, in Colombia. At Lujan, in Argentina, she remains stubbornly fixed with local people on the left bank of the river Lujan. In Costa Rica she is Our Lady of the Angels, known as La Negrita, the Little Black Lady. She shows herself to a poor, simple child, Juana Pereira, in a place called Pueblo de los Negros, on 2 August, 1635.
Mary silently points out that the Gospel is to be proclaimed from the peripheries, the caves and cellars of humanity. Mary shows that the Gospel means staying with the poor and defending their lives, their faith and their hopes.
As the Brazilian bishop, Mons Luciano Mendes de Almeida, Archbishop of Marianna and former President of the Conference of the Bishops of Brazil, who died in 2006, once wrote: ‘The little image dragged up from the waters of a river by fishermen sends us a message of solidarity with her children sorely oppressed at the time. She identified with the Brazilians who were suffering the injustice of slavery. The Mother of God showed, in her face, wrinkled like that of her black children, the love she has for them and the dignity they deserve. In a time of discrimination, she became the Mother of all races and made us understand we are all brothers and sisters’.
For the last three hundred years, Mary has been the nascent Church immersing itself in the suffering people. She is the Virgin of Sorrows, the dark-skinned Mother of Heaven, the Woman restored to life. In the words of the singer-composer Father Zezinho: ‘Today I became a pilgrim, with no illusions and no utopia! I went to visit the house built for Mother Mary! And, I did so with my simple understanding of this devotion! To the Black Lady I said: Lead my people to freedom’.
Fernando Altemever Jr.