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Watch a soccer match or two during World Cup 2014 and you’ll see players making the Sign of the Cross before penalty shots, after missed goals and walking in and out of the stadium — soccer is perhaps the most religiously expressive sport in the world. To boot, for many fans worldwide, the World Cup is the ultimate High Holy Day. And this year, the Cup is being hosted by Brazil, which has the largest number of Catholics in the world.
In honor of the World Cup and all the religion in the air, here are seven inspiring religious sites tourists might see when they’re not worshipping at the stadiums.
The most well known of Brazil’s religious sites, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, completed in 1931, stands 98 feet tall with outstretched arms that measure 92 feet. The monument was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. The statue stands atop Corcovado peak and boasts incredible views of Rio de Janeiro. At the statue’s base sits a chapel, dedicated in 2006 to Our Lady of Aparecida (the patron saint of Brazil). Travelers can take a train, cab, or van up to the base of the statue.
This monastery was founded in 1590 in Rio de Janeiro by a group of Benedictine monks from Bahia. Located on a seaside hill, the church has a rather plain exterior and lavish interior — a contrast typical of Portuguese art. The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is full of ornate, gold-coated woodcarvings, spiral columns, and ceiling panels depicting Benedictine saints. On Sundays at 10 a.m., the monastery holds open Mass with Gregorian chants.
According to its website, this is the largest shrine in the world dedicated to Mary, Jesus’ mother — and there’s a bit of a story behind it. In 1717, three fishermen had been ordered to fish in the River Paraiba (which runs beside the Basilica) to provide for a banquet honoring a visiting governor. After a while, they still hadn’t caught a single fish when one of the men decided to throw his net in for the last time. He pulled out a statue of the Virgin Mary. One of the fishermen kept the statue in his house until a church was built to accommodate the number of pilgrims coming to pray to her. (Side note: the men also had tremendous luck catching enough fish for the banquet.)
The statue of Our Lady of Aparecida is currently held in the National Shrine, where some 11 million pilgrims visit each year, including three popes. Most recently, Pope Francis came to the basilica during his stay in Brazil for World Youth Day.
Italian Dom Bosco, the patron saint of Brasilia, had a dream in 1883 of a future utopian city, one that would rule justly and provide for the nation’s people from a specific location in the new world — between 15 and 20 degrees latitude. Bosco’s dream inspired the building of Brasilia and, in his honor, the Sanctuary of Dom Bosco was built precisely on the 15th parallel. All four walls of the sanctuary are made from stained glass in 12 shades of blue and dotted with white squares. The sanctuary is open to visitors 24 hours a day — by day the windows filter the sunlight, bathing the space in a soft blue, while at night the sanctuary is illuminated only by a chandelier made from 7,400 pieces of glass and symbolic of Jesus, the light of the world.
There are more than a few interesting rituals associated with this eighteenth-century church that exemplify the syncretism of Catholic and African religions. To start, a Portuguese Navy captain, caught in a storm at sea, vowed to bring an image of Christ crucified to Brazil if he survived. In 1754, the image was brought into the Church of Our Lord of Bonfim, now a pilgrimage sight for miracle seekers. In fact, the Room of Miracles is lined with replicas of body parts healed or in need of healing and small photographs of the grateful. Bonfim Church is well known for its colorful wish ribbons, tied around the wearer’s wrist with three knots — each representing a wish — and worn until they fall off, at which point the wishes should be granted. Each ribbon is 47 centimeters long, the length of the right arm of the statue of Jesus at the church’s altar.
Each year, around a million people come to participate in the Washing of Bonfim, a custom started in 1773 when slaves were told to wash the steps of the church in preparation for the feast of Our Lord of Bonfim. The tradition now blends Catholicism with the Candomble African religion, as the slaves, who weren’t allowed to openly participate in their own religious rites, adopted the worship of their deities into Catholic ones — viewing Oxala, creator of humanity, in the statues of Jesus, for example.
This cathedral serves as the seat of the archbishop of Rio and honors Saint Sebastian, the city’s patron saint. In 1979, it replaced a number of old, smaller churches that had served as cathedrals since 1676. Its conical design is significant for a few reasons and was inspired by the Mayan pyramids. However, it differs in its circular shape, which signifies the proximity of believers to God, and is reminiscent of the miter worn by bishops. The four stained-glass windows that stretch floor to ceiling meet at the top to form a transparent cross. They symbolize not only God descending down to mankind, but also the four characteristics of the Church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. The large structure fits 20,000 standing worshipers or 5,000 seated, and houses the Sacred Art Museum in its basement.
This church, noticeable because of its blue façade, took almost 100 years to erect because the slaves who built it were only permitted to work on it at night so as to not interfere with their daytime work. Sunday Mass blends Catholicism with African rituals, including the playing of African drums and burning of incense. The interior features images of black saints such as Saints Iphigenia, Benedict and Elesbao. An old slave cemetery is located in the back of the church. In 2012, the church installed a permanent exhibition depicting through photographs, text and panels the history of the brotherhood of ex-slaves.
Lead image via Shutterstock.