APARECIDA, Brazil (AP) — Tens of thousands of worshippers braved the pandemic to make a pilgrimage to the vast Aparecida basilica in the interior of Sao Paulo state, some traveling on foot for days to reach Tuesday's celebration of the nation’s patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida.
On a normal year, the cathedral can welcome up to 35,000 people. But with the pandemic still killing an average of over 400 Brazilians every day, services had to be downsized for the second year in a row.
“It’s difficult, you know. You need to have faith that everything will be alright,” said Daiane Santos Barbosa, still out of breath after walking for more than 60 miles. “The recompense is to arrive here,” she added, turning toward the great cathedral behind her.
Barbosa, who traveled from the neighboring state of Rio de Janeiro, hoped to get inside for one of the day’s Masses. Several services were held, each of them topped at 2,500 people, up from just 1,000 last year, to protect the health of participants.
The celebration of Our Lady of Aparecida is one of the most important days for Brazil's Roman Catholics, and a bank holiday in Brazil. It is no coincidence that 90 years ago, officials in Rio de Janeiro chose the day to inaugurate the Christ the Redeemer statue, the iconic monument overlooking the city.
Another pilgrim from Rio de Janeiro said she and many others came in defiance of the coronavirus to offer prayers after many months of pandemic and a worsening economic crisis.
“Although the pandemic is still going, people put this question of illness aside to experience some peace,” said Joice do Carmo. “We lost many people. I just lost an aunt because because of this, but others in my family are still here and this is a way to be thankful.”
Almost 45% of the population is fully vaccinated in Brazil, and a greater percentage of Brazilians are partially vaccinated than in the U.S. or Germany, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.
In a surprise visit, President Jair Bolsonaro attended Tuesday's celebrations. His appearance led some to cheer, others to boo as the Brazilian leader walked through the crowd. Many hold him and his administration responsible for some of the 600,000 deaths that the virus has caused in Brazil since the beginning of the pandemic.
Bolsonaro spent months fighting mayors and governors who adopted lockdown measures or other restrictions on the economy, and sowing doubt about the efficacy of vaccines. He remains unvaccinated himself, though he has some protection after being ill with COVID-19.
In his morning service, the archbishop of Aparecida, Orlando Brandes, made a veiled criticism of the Bolsonaro administration, referring to its repeated attempts at loosening gun restrictions.
“Today is Children’s Day. Let’s embrace our poor and our authorities so that together we can build a beloved country in Brazil. And to be a beloved homeland, it cannot be an armed homeland,” the archbishop said.
Associated Press video journalist Tatiana Pollastri reported this story in Aparecida and AP writer Diane Jeantet reported from Rio de Janeiro.