Brazil - “On the path of pilgrims, Juazeiro is the gate of Mercy.”

Today, Hildete and I would like to share with you a little of our experience during the pilgrimage to Juazeiro, in the steps of ‘Padin Ciço’ (the nickname given to Father Cicero Romão Batista), which took place during the week of the 10-15 September for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Juazeiro is a land of pilgrimage and of dreams for people from the north-east of Brazil and, as we are part of these people, it was natural to cultivate this desire to spend some days close to this large holy lace, also known as the pilgrim nation.

In order to understand and experience in a better way what Juazeiro reserved for us, we took a look at the history of Father Cícero Romão Batista, a priest who was dedicated to the people, with all their needs. He was born on the 24th of March 1844 in the town of Crato, close to Juazeiro, and was ordained a priest in 1870 after many financial difficulties. His presence was impressive, his voice agreeable and he was totally dedicated to the mission of the Church. He did not lose sight of the social aspect and, in that domain, he struggled for the good of the people, whether during times of severe epidemics or of droughts in the Ceara region. His efforts transformed Juazeiro into an important city of inner Ceara. 
 
Father Cícero, whom the people called ‘Padin Ciço’, was a small man, with fair skin, blue eyes and blond hair. 
 
The main event that transformed his life was an uncommon occurrence during a mass he was celebrating, when Sister Maria de Arujo, who worked with him, was not able, at the moment of receiving communion, to swallow the consecrated host because it had been transformed into blood (we have seen the piece of cloth that wiped the mouth of the Blessed Maria, at Father Cicero’s memorial). The miraculous occurrence did not trouble Father Cicero, who sought to be discreet. However, as it happened more than once the news spread and the Church summoned investigators who decided not to recognise a miracle, and Father Cícero was suspended from his priestly functions. As he was forbidden to celebrate, he went into political life in an effective way, and became the first prefect of the recently-emancipated Juazeiro (1911). 
 
The ‘Eucharistic Miracle’ of Juazeiro is still being studied, by various specialists as well as priests, nevertheless Father Cicero died without a reconciliation with the Church, and it was only in December 2015, with Pope Francis, that the reconciliation took place. That is why, in Juazeiro during this year of mercy, we sing in the Eucharistic celebrations : ‘On the path of the pilgrims, Juazeiro is the door of Mercy’. It is worth noting that the people, in their demonstrations of faith, are not much concerned with the Church bureaucracy and look on ‘Father Ciço’ as the great Saint of Juazeiro. 
 
All this mysticism of the people’s faith motivated us to participate in the pilgrimage on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Mother of Sorrows, as the pilgrims say. Devotion to Mary under this title was spread by Father Cicero and for that reason, as it was the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the pilgrimage of “Father Ciço and the Mother of Sorrows” came into being. 
 
Our journey: We left at 2.45 a.m. on the 10th of September, heading for Juazeiro in a small bus with 28 passengers. We sang, we shared lunch and we had the opportunity to see the happiness of each person at this chance to fulfil their promise “to Papa Ciço and to the Mother of Sorrows’. We arrived in Juazeiro at 2.30 p..m. and went directly to the ‘rancho’ : it consists of an unfurnished house which the inhabitants of Juazeiro rent to the pilgrims. The ‘rancho’ allocated to us had three large rooms and a bathroom ; the owner of the house provided us with a small stove and a freezer. Each one had his or her sleeping bag or mattress, the sleeping spaces were collective and the dynamic of respect guided our life together. This made us think of the ‘Utopia of Fraternity’; when something happened that might damage this fraternity, we sang part of the Pilgrim’s hymn, which takes up the teachings of ‘Father Ciço’: ‘‘The one who stole no longer steals […] the true pilgrim lives in fraternity’’. 
 
With regard to the programme of the pilgrimage, there was a mass at various times in different churches, with confessions, and every evening mass was celebrated in the garden facing the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows as the church was not big enough for the number of pilgrims. The liturgy of each day, very well prepared, was prayerful and involved us from the beginning to the end. 
 
Part of the pilgrimage was to become acquainted with various parts of the city. Among these were: the garden where there is the big statue of Father Cícero (27 metres), one of the most visited landmarks of Juazeiro. Still in the garden, after a long walk along small paths in the midst of the trees, with, here and there, small stalls where food and natural medicines were sold, we came across the boulders with fissures, which the people call rocks ‘of the holy sepulchre’ ; We think this name was given because, according to what is said, it was the place to which Father Cicero used to send the penitents to have a time of reflection while they were trying to go piously through the openings in the rocks: some are more difficult than others, and sometimes it is necessary to help a person to go in or to get out. 
 
We also visited some churches, like that of Perpetual Succour, where the tomb of Father Cícero is, the Church of St Francis, where there is also the convent of the Franciscans, and the Church of Saint John Bosco, a Salesian sanctuary. In addition to the religious visits, we also went to the famous cajuína factory (production of drinks from cashew nuts). In single file we could observe the process of storing the product and each one received a glass of cajuina. In the factory there is a life-size wax model of Father Cicero; it seems so true to life that everybody wanted to be in a photo, apparently having a conversation with him; we also risked doing that! 
 
On the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the city is filled with festivities! As a religious celebration, the programme began at 5 a.m. and ended after the procession, about 9 p.m. The procession was beautiful! A multitude recalled for us the people of God in the exodus; so many people who were walking, asking for the grace of liberation for someone who was oppressed, or giving thanks for what had already been obtained. We walked for two hours, a procession with hymns and prayers; we also prayed as we contemplated the faces of the people and we reaffirmed the faith that “I am also your people Lord, I who am walking along this road.”
 
We concluded by giving thanks to the God of life, who gave us the opportunity to experience this occasion, and helped us to understand the piety of the people and how they are continuing to follow paths of the Kingdom. 
 
With our sincere affection to each one, 
 
Sisters Hildete and Ernestina 
06/01/2017
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