The Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, which Pope Francis will visit next week, is the top pilgrimage site in Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country.
Halfway between Sao Paulo and Rio, the shrine houses a famous 18th-century clay statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the traditional form of the Immaculate Conception.
The dark statue is widely worshipped by Brazilian Roman Catholics, who consider it the country's main patroness. According to Roman Catholic lore, three fishermen found a headless statue of the Virgin Mary in the Paraiba River in October 1717. They also salvaged the head and subsequently netted plenty of fish. The fishermen named the statue Our Lady of the Appeared Conception. Neighbors began to venerate it and it came to be known as Our Lady of Aparecida. The statue was proclaimed Brazil's patroness in 1930 and is celebrated on October 12. "In Aparecida, Brazil's Catholic heart beats," proclaims the shrine's website. The main basilica can welcome 30,000 people while the entire shrine area can accommodate more than 300,000 visitors. So far, two popes have visited the shrine, John Paul II in July 1980 and Benedict XV1 in May 2007.
Pope Francis is to travel to Aparecida next Wednesday as part of his week-long visit to Brazil to attend World Youth Day, an international Catholic festival expected to attract 1.5 million young pilgrims.