From Rio: WYD pilgrimage ends with mountaintop experience, visit to Aparecida

After our time with Pope Francis in Rio we had two more tasks to accomplish before leaving the Brazil and it’s “Marvelous City.” First, we rode the gondola to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. This sounds touristy, but in actuality it was just icing on the cake of this pilgrimage. When we arrived at the base of the mountain, we had to wait three hours just to get tickets because of all the World Youth Day pilgrims still in Rio. Despite the wait, everyone’s spirits were high from the papal Mass the day before and all the incredible things we had been experiencing all week.

Once aboard, we hung by a wire as we were lifted, in two stages, “to the heights” as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati would say. Most would recognize the scenery of Sugar Loaf from a James Bond movie, but for me it was different. I began this pilgrimage on one mountaintop (Corcovado), and now I was ending it on another.

As I stood on the top looking over all of Rio I could see Copacabana, Ipanema, St. Sebastian Cathedral, and Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado! I had a moment of pure grace and thanksgiving as I realized how much God has blessed me in my life. The more I put my trust in God, the more he continues to surprise me. The more I am open to his will and not my own, the more God shows me the magnificence of all his creation. It may seem corny reading this, but to me it was an absolute encounter with the living God. Christ the Redeemer was towering over the entire city and I had the blessing this week to be in his shadow.

Majesty of Aparecida

On Tuesday we said “goodbye” to Rio de Janeiro early in the morning and headed to Aparecida. That Brazilian town is home to the world’s largest shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Many may have recognized it as the place Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI visited in 2007 and Pope Francis visited on the second day he was in Brazil.

It is important to note that Aparecida is not particularly close to any major city. The church itself is huge and kind of just pops out of nowhere when driving from Rio. The plaza outside has arms that are remarkably similar to that of St. Peter’s Square in Rome and adorned with statues of the apostles. We made our way inside the shrine and were blown away by the size of the sanctuary! Besides its enormity, what struck me most was the church’s simple decoration.

There might be obvious cost reasons behind this simplicity, but I took something else away from it. Ancient churches are ornate and overdecorated because of the history of the Church in the region it lies. Here in Brazil and South America, while the continent “has received the proclamation of the Gospel” as the Holy Father stated earlier in the week, we have not yet begun to see the best days of the Church. The mosaic stories and miracles are just beginning to be seen and so this part of the Church is just starting to show her beauty and majesty. I can only imagine that 200 years from now Our Lady of Aparecida will attract as many pilgrims and have as much décor as any site in Europe. After all, in the wake of World Youth Day, this region of the world is now the heart of the Church and will remain so for the foreseeable future!

Stephen Lenahan is the director of youth ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, Ga., and blogged for Our Sunday Visitor from Rio throughout World Youth Day.