Monday June 23rd, 2014

Simon Bruty/SI

APARECIDA, Brazil – About halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, a church rises off the highway, its green dome and clock tower and series of chapels three times as wide as a futbol pitch. This church is the Cowboys Stadium of Latin American religious centers, home to 11 million annual visitors, the soccer star Ronaldo and his mom included.

They call the complex the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida, and downstairs, below the chapels, beyond the food court, there is a room where actual religion and the sport that most elicits religious fervor – both here and throughout the world – intersect.

The room is called the Hall of Promises, but before, it was the Hall of Miracles, and before that, the Room of Miracles – a lot of pressure, a lot of power, for one space. Wax limbs hang from the ceiling, so many arms and feet and legs and hands. Display cases fill the space nearby, their shelves filled with motorcycle helmets and model planes and cowboy hats and elegant vases and toy horses and rusted knives and stethoscopes and, oddly, one framed American Express card.

In this installment of Viagem Brazil, SI's Greg Bishop explores how religion and sports intersect in Aparecida, Brazil.
Sports Illustrated

On one side of the room, there is a table, and on top of the table, there are little white cards. As Sunday morning turns into Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of Catholics fill those cards with wishes and deposit them into boxes.

On the other side of the room, there is an office area lined with still more shelves. Another faction of the faithful leaves items with the workers there. A wax house. A T-shirt. A steering wheel. A foot.

Now, the cards and the shelves and the office area are tied together, part of the same ritual performed even by soccer fans.

The wish: what someone wants, like a healthy baby, career advancement, or a sixth World Cup championship for Brazil. When practitioners make these requests, they promise saints that if their wish is granted, they will make a pilgrimage to the church and offer a gift – called ex-votos – as a thank you.

The office area: where the church collects and stores the gifts.

The shelves: where some of the gifts, a fraction, really, are displayed.

Faithful observers light candles at the National Shrine of Our Lady Aparecida.
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/GettyImages

Now, because this is Brazil, a country where a religious figure named Father Santana served as the masseur for two World Cup teams (1962, ’66) and reportedly ended a curse by burying a wooden cross behind a goal, if soccer is not a religion, as it is often described, it is at least part of established religions. The Hall of Promises – Sala das Promessas – is proof.

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Here, they say, “God is Brazilian.” They also say, “Brazil is fútbol country.” Whether that makes God the manager of Brazil remains unsaid. But …

Apparently, a lot of Catholics wished for soccer victories, for soccer stardom, for soccer championships. That’s evident in the display case near the back, the one crammed full of soccer cleats and gloves and balls and jerseys of every size, color and stripe. The top of the case is lined with trophies. And while other sports are represented – by a boxing glove, a golf club, three surfboards, a deflated and worn-out basketball – soccer dominates the display. Apparently, a lot of Catholics won a lot of games, made a lot of pilgrimages and gave a lot of gifts.

Jonatas Veloso is a coordinator for visitors at the museum, one of the few there that speaks English. He stands by the office space, as perhaps a dozen visitors clad in Neymar’s yellow No. 10 jersey stop by the sports display. To him, this is normal, not blasphemous, soccer so closely connected to religion. “I think we will get many Brazil jerseys next year,” he says. Translation: after they are champions.

The many gifts – called ex-votos – that practitioners have left for the saints after their wishes were granted by the church.
Greg Bishop/SI

For many, the pilgrimage Sunday starts with a bus ride, from Rio and Sao Paulo and all points in between. One bus leaves Sao Paulo at 8:30 a.m. and drives away from all the smog and sprawl and the poor camped out under highway overpasses. The landscape changes every few minutes, with cities fading into farmland, fading back into cities, fading back into farmland. Cows graze outside the windows. Horses run. Sheep do whatever it is sheep do.

The bus stops in Aparecida, the church visible from the highway and throughout town, its own sprawl the size of a World Cup stadium. The path there leads through a street market, where venders sell various religious artifacts – crosses and statues and Jesus T-shirts. Well, those and Brazil national team soccer jerseys.

Outside of the complex, still more venders hawk ice cream and steamed corn and churros and beer. There is an amusement park in the shadow of the chapels, a Ferris Wheel, even, bumper cars. It costs 12 reais (about $5.40) for three rides. Everyone takes pictures.

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Inside, a pastor preaches. The pews are full, not an open seat in sight, a standing-room-only crowd behind. The ceiling is a mosaic of yellow and blue and designs of leaves. A cross hangs in the middle of the room. The service streams on televisions across the grounds.

Veloso walks toward the museums, where, in a prominent display case, there is a signed Ronaldo jersey and an homage to Brazil’s national team. Veloso says Ronaldo visited before and after the 2002 World Cup. He landed in a helicopter with his mother. Brazil, incidentally, won that Cup, its fifth. So Ronaldo left the signed jersey; which rests at the bottom of the shrine; a small, jeweled crown on top. The walls behind the jersey list the years of Brazil’s five titles and showcase paintings of players and of fans. The faithful stop and takes pictures, even if the home nation’s performance against Mexico had dented some of their fútbol faith.

Crowds walk up the hill, or down the footbridge, into the museum, thousands of revelers, from the hundreds of buses parked nearby. So many visitors wear soccer jerseys. One tourist heads inside through the garden clad in a shirt that announces his allegiance to England, but not even God can help the British now.

Ronaldo visited the church before and after the 2002 World Cup, which Brazil subsequently won. So Ronaldo left this signed jersey; which rests at the bottom of the shrine; a small, jeweled crown on top. The walls behind the jersey list the years of Brazil’s five titles and showcase paintings of players and of fans.
Greg Bishop/SI

Another man walks through the museums. He doesn’t speak English. He passes all the Jesus statues, the paintings, the crosses, the china, the currency, the violins. The man wears a yellow No. 10, of course. He pays for a candle, the long ones the size of walking sticks for sale at the church. He lights the candle, and he steps inside the chapel, and while there is no way to know if he considers soccer at that moment, if he prays for victory or a World Cup championship, the odds seem at least tilted toward that scenario. Anyway, that’s what I want to believe he did.

I walk back outside, back into the gardens, back down the hill, past the fountains, through the street market, back to the bus and crowded Sao Paulo and a World Cup tournament now deep into its second week.

Maybe soccer is religion here. Maybe religion has nothing to do with sports. Either way, I drop some money into the offering basket. After all, the United States is playing Portugal at 7.

This is the fourteenth piece in a series throughout the opening weeks of the World Cup in which SI senior writer Greg Bishop and photographer Simon Bruty chronicle their travel to offer a taste of the cultural side of Brazil.

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