Círio Belém 2012 – 220 years of Devotion to the Virgin Mary

Last week two important events took place in Brazil. One was the reconquering by the authorities of some infamous by drugs criminals dominated favelas in Rio de Janeiro. All with the intention of bringing back peace to the population of Rio de Janeiro.

The second event was a spiritual one. Probably world’s largest Roman Catholic Festival.
I come back to the pacification actions in Rio in a later article, now first the spiritual highlight of the year.

It is well-known that originally, due to being once a Portuguese colony, Brazil was a Roman Catholic bastion. Indeed was, as millions and millions of Brazilians are turning their back to the Roman Catholic Church and jump ship in favour of the many (often crooky) evangelical denominations. The streets in Brazilian towns are literally littered with temples, churches, holy warehouses and any other place available to establish an evangelical denomination with the most fantastic names. Day and night with the doors open, they blare their “holy message” into the streets. But whatever the negatives and dubious they apparently have something more to offer to the faithful than the emptiness, stillness and disinterest of the servants of the old Roman Catholic Church. So, like everywhere in the world, the old Church in Brazil is getting empty and nobody cares.

But there is one day in the year when all people from Pará and far beyond enjoy a day of Catholicism, irrespective which denomination or cult they joined. On that special day all evangelical temples and churches are empty. Suddenly everybody is Catholic again. The Círio de Nazaré is trumping every other spiritual activity.

A procession formed by more than two million people united by one single goal: showing their intense devotion to Mary, Our Lady of Nazareth. Catholics, devotees saying their thanks or making promises, just faithful devotees, ordinary Christians of any colour and admirers of the faith in Mary. It is they, who throng the streets during the festivities around the Círio de Nazaré.

Traffic is stopped or diverted, the main roads of the capital are closed. Banks, public buildings, shops and houses are decorated. All to make way for the image of the patron saint of Pará.
This is how it is in Belém do Pará already for 220 years.

For every Paraense, the second Sunday of October is marked by renewal of the faith in the Mother of Jesus, who despite being represented by an image of less than 60 cm height carries symbolism and lofty energy, able to draw a crowd of devotees, who make the Círio one of the largest religious festivals in the world.

As always with the Roman Catholic Church there is some fairy tale behind the festival. So also here.

The beginning of what would become the Círio happened in 1700, in Belém, when the caboclo (mixed white and indigenous) Plácido José dos Santos walked through the old road of Utinga, currently the Avenida Nazaré, and saw on the shores of the Murutucu creek (which was located behind what is now the Basilica) a small statue of the Virgin Mary.

Photo of what is said to be the original statue of Mary, found by the caboclo Plácido – Photo: Shirley Penaforte – Amazônia Jornal

He took it home, put it in a drawer and went to sleep. The next day, when looking for the statue, he found that it was gone. Surprised, Plácido returned to the creek and found it again in the same place where it was the day before.

According to history, the caboclo would have brought the statue several times to his house, but it always disappeared. Until one day the governor of the city determined that the image was to be brought to the Government Palace, where it should spent the night escorted by guards. But to everyone’s surprise, the next morning, the statue of Mary had disappeared again and was later found on the banks of the Murutucu creek.

Plácido then imagined that this was the wish of the saint, and decided to build a small chapel on the banks of the creek. Over time, the news of the “miracle” spread and attracted many city dwellers, who, being curious, became part of the group of faithful devotees of Our Lady.

Each year, the number of people seeking the miraculous statue, increased, and to achieve their thanks, returned to the house of the caboclo with votive offering (ex voto suscepto, “from the vow made”) in gratitude or devotion, wax objects representing the members of the human body, crutches or portraits, as used by the faithful to demonstrate the recognition of the wishes fulfilled.

With the visit of the first Bishop of Pará, Don Bartolomeu Pilar, the devotion to Mary was encouraged. Between 1730 and 1774, a new chapel was built to receive the faithful of Our Lady. More specifically in 1773, with the visit of the fifth bishop of the state, Don João Evangelista, the devotion to the Virgin Mary was formalized and Belém was placed under the protection of Our Lady of Nazareth.

The first Círio de Nazaré
According to Iphan (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional), etymologically, the word “círio”, from the Latin cereus, means a large wax candle. In Portugal, the candles represented a gathering of people organising themselves in a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Nazareth. Subsequently, the wax candles or círios brought by the pilgrims transformed the name of the pilgrimage into Círio.

The first official Círio procession was held in 1793. To stimulate local trade, the president of the province of Pará, Francisco de Sousa Coutinho, also decided in 1791 to organise a huge market for agricultural products and extractives of the region. Seeking success in this activity, he scheduled the event for the second semester of 1793, at which time the devotees of Our Lady of Nazareth used to honour her.

An important characteristic of the Círio is the strength of the faith of the people who are there only for the devotion to Mary. A document of the Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan), explains, that although the organization of the pilgrimage initially had an institutional character, it never ceased to express the different segments that make up society.

Professor Ph.D. in history, Aldrin Figueiredo of the Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA), explains that the Círio is a procession that takes the traditions of early religious festivities.

“The Círio has a medieval aspect; therefore the statue is called a queen. It goes along the whole route as if it is royalty and this has everything of the structure of a middle age procession, where bishops, governors, schools, institutions, corporations, military, and associations are present. Even today.

In spite of some changes in the characteristics and when in each period one or another society body associates with the procession, the same basic structure continues. Despite that Belém already is a metropolis, it keeps this collective aspect of the Círio. Society today tends to individualism, but the Círio de Nazaré and its festivities as a whole, emphasize that collectivity. This is the most interesting aspect”, says the historian.

For Figueiredo, several points make the Círio even grander, like the movement of tourism and trade, which creates various products associated with the season.

“Perhaps no festival in the world has this force. The interesting aspect isn’t the cultural one, it is the sociability, the collectivization that the Círio creates. More even than expose the culture of Pará, it is the junction of ordinary people who find themselves involved in these festivities.

If we could synthesize the mode of being of Pará, set a local ‘ethos’, it would be represented by what we are and how we live at this time. The Círio defines this mode of being. During the Círio the best of all manifestations of Pará is more alive. It is hard to remain indifferent, because it has the sociability aspect, a way to share, share the faith. The Círio is exactly that”, says the history professor.

Admire the devotion, admire the suffering, and enjoy the photos.

All photos Alexandre Modesto, Heloá Canali and Danielle Zuquim / Portal ORM