Pilgrims immersed themselves in Brazilian Catholic culture for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.

And among the most well-known religious sites in Brazil are: Christ the Redeemer statue and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida.

One can hardly think of Rio de Janeiro without also calling to mind that iconographic statue of Jesus Christ overlooking the city, his arms outstretched as though he were welcoming the world to his embrace.

Christ the Redeemer, or Cristo Redentor, as it is known in Portuguese, was first thought of in the 1850s by a Catholic priest named Pedro Maria Boss, who was hoping to erect a large religious monument of some sort. He requested financing from Queen Isabel, who rejected the idea on political grounds. However, the idea resurfaced in 1920 by a group of Catholics in the area who organized an event they called Semana do Monumento (Monument Week). Word spread, and, before long, enough funds and signatures were gathered to persuade the government that Rio should have a grand statue of Christ.

As far as what the statue would be, a few options were considered before a statue of Jesus with open arms, a symbol of peace, was settled upon. The location would be atop the 710-meter-tall Corcovado peak, in the very heart of Rio. This way, no matter where one is in Rio, one can look up and see Jesus. Construction began in 1922 and was completed in 1931, costing the U.S. equivalent of $250,000. The statue itself stands 38 meters tall, making it the second-tallest statue of Christ in the world.

Annually, more than 2 million visitors take in the statue, choosing one of three ways to get there: by electric train, by car or by foot. Years ago, my husband inadvertently hiked to the statue by following a trail he stumbled upon while enjoying the surrounding Tijuca National Forest. He spent a wonderful three hours climbing through the jungle, enjoying a handful of vistas of Rio when the trees allowed it. As he emerged at the top of the mount, he was startled to find himself at the foot of Cristo Redentor. He spent a while resting at the statue and contemplating God’s providence. A wonderful find — and a perfect way to give thanks to God for a traveler’s serendipity.

Less well known to foreigners, but every bit as beloved by Brazilians, is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, located in the town of Aparecida, only 150 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro.

The traditional story of the shrine begins in the early 1700s. It is believed that a group of fishermen were having a hard time catching fish to provide for a banquet honoring the governor of Sao Paolo. They prayed for help and, shortly afterwards, netted a statue of the Blessed Virgin. They wrapped her up in a cloth and continued to fish, this time bringing in all that they needed for the feast. It is unknown how the statue came to rest in the river, but it is certain that it had been there for some time, because she had lost most of her original finish. She is believed to have been made around 1650 by Frei Agonstino de Jesus, a monk who lived in Sao Paolo. A small chapel was built in her honor in 1745, and, in the mid-1800s, another slightly larger church replaced it.

Then, in 1955, construction began on the basilica as we know it today. This time, the designers must have decided that larger is better. The Our Lady of Aparecida Shrine is the second-largest basilica in the world, with only St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome being larger. Built in the grand Romanesque style in the form of a Greek cross, the "arms" of the cross stretch out more than 600 feet each way, and the dome soars a massive 230 feet high. Inside, with 190,000 square feet of space, the basilica can hold 45,000 Massgoers. There is even room to hold an extra 25,000 for those who don’t mind being in the ancillary areas. A mixture of clear glass and beautifully rendered stained glass allow light to stream in at all sides, heightening the sense of God’s grandeur. While praying in a space like this, one can’t help but be reminded that God is so big, yet we are his children, who are called to trust in him.

At the end of an arm section of the church, one finds the very statue of Our Lady of Aparecida (translated to Our Lady Who Appeared, as "aparecida" means "appeared") that was found in a river nearby. The statue’s dark color is enhanced by an elegant and brightly embroidered mantle and a beautiful crown studded with precious stones. The patroness of Brazil, she is revered without compare. At recent count, there are 296 Brazilian parishes and five other cathedrals under this title. Baby girls are often named Aparecida, with its popularity ranked alongside the name Maria. More than 8 million pilgrims travel to the basilica annually to kneel at the feet of the Virgin. She might be the smallest among us, at a mere three-feet tall, just as Mary, when she walked the earth, was a lowly handmaid. But all of this reminds us of Mary’s Magnificat: truly, God has lifted up the lowly.

The Church, as always, joins Mary in her prayer. During the consecration of the shrine on July 4, 1980, Pope John Paul II implored the Blessed Mother to ensure that it be for the Brazilian people a "sacrament of salvation and a sign of the unity of all men, adopted brothers and sisters of your Son and children of the heavenly Father."

This year, in serving hundreds of thousands of World Youth Day pilgrims from every corner of the globe, Aparecida and Christ the Reedemer continue in their mission of spiritual renewal, allowing the faith of the Brazilian people to help shine the light of Christ upon the whole world.

Joy Wambeke writes from Marshall, Minnesota.