SAO PAULO (RNS) — In a country where people have revered folk religious figures for centuries, Padim Ciço — or Father Cícero Romão Batista (1844-1934) — has been the greatest of all Brazilian unofficial saints.
Every year, 2 million devotees visit Juazeiro do Norte, the city he founded in Ceará state, in order to thank him for a cure or another grace obtained through his intercession.
Over time, practices became ritualized: People go first to the local churches to pray and then to the giant sculpture that portrays Padim Ciço. There, they tie a ribbon at a specific spot, with the hope that their problems will be solved when the ribbon is untied.
The whole phenomenon was never directly supported by the Catholic hierarchy. But now, almost 90 years after his death, Padim Ciço may officially become a saint.
In August, the Holy See informed the Diocese of Crato that there are no obstacles impeding the cause of his beatification, allowing the local church to launch the process for Padim Ciço’s recognition as Blessed Cícero, the first step toward his canonization.
While the announcement was celebrated in the region of Juazeiro — and in a great part of the South American country — for many of his devotees, the news was met with something of a shrug.
“Once I was talking to a pilgrim about the fact that the Vatican had never recognized Father Cícero’s sainthood,” recalled Renato Casimiro, a university professor who has studied Batista’s life. “The man was surprised. ‘Oh my God, so the pope does not know that my Padim Ciço is a saint?’
“It is quite common to witness that kind of reaction,” added Casimiro, who has closely followed the back and forth between the diocese and the Vatican around the subject of Batista’s beatification.
Indeed, for years there have been several obstacles to Batista’s canonization, many originating in controversies that began when he was still alive.
Batista settled in 1872 in Juazeiro do Norte, then simply an abandoned district of the city of Crato, though it was situated in a fertile valley in the middle of a very dry region. Batista’s steady work to develop agriculture in Juazeiro over the years attracted new families, many of them fleeing severe droughts in Ceará and neighboring states in northeastern Brazil.
Most were also trying to escape violence and poverty. The region’s lands used to be in the hands of a small number of big landowners, who maintained large masses of peasants in extreme poverty.
“He would welcome all of them with joy and a charitable spirit. Batista rapidly became an important leader who worked hard to develop the local economy and secure the means of subsistence for everyone,” Casimiro said.
Batista imported more productive strains of sugar cane and yucca from other states, incentivizing the modernization of farming methods in an area severely limited by state negligence and ignorance.
“Today, Father Cícero would be like the founder of a great nongovernmental organization or a social pastoral ministry that helps the poor,” Casimiro said.
Batista’s careful work with peasants and his tenderness with them — in an era when priests were often austere and inaccessible figures — made his fame grow all over the sertão, the dry zone of the northeast. His nickname padim comes from his kindness: It means “little priest” and also “godfather,” a signal of his closeness to the people.
“After a few years, rich people began to give him lands and money to contribute to his work. He became a wealthy, powerful man — but he always used everything to help the poor,” said the Rev. Wesley Barros, vicar of the Crato cathedral. “When new people arrived looking for his help, he would simply give them a house and land.”
In 1889, Maria de Araújo, who had received the Communion wafer from the priest, said it turned into blood in her mouth — and she kept the handkerchief with blood stains. According to the woman, this phenomenon occurred 46 more times over the next couple of years.
A committee was formed by the diocese to investigate the alleged miracle and concluded there was no plausible explanation, so it was the result of God’s grace. But the local bishop designated another group to analyze the events, and the group decried the claim as fraud. The bishop suspended Batista’s orders and cloistered Maria de Araújo.
“He complied with the order and ceased to administer the sacraments. But he kept his charitable work and his commitment to the people — who continued to see him as a saint,” Barros said.
In fact, the “miracle of Juazeiro” greatly accentuated Batista’s fame as a holy man. Thousands of people traveled to the city to see him and ask for his blessing — and many ultimately chose to settle there.
“An aunt of mine had a dream in which Padim Ciço told her to come to Juazeiro, because it was a place of salvation. Many, many people tell that kind of story,” Casimiro said.
The Catholic hierarchy did not know how to deal with his growing fame and ordered Batista to leave Juazeiro do Norte. He did not and became an important political leader in the region. The combination of his holy status and his powerful social influence led the Vatican to issue an excommunication order against him.
But Batista was in poor health by then and the local bishop never followed through on the excommunication orders, according to Barros. “The problems which led to that controversy were far in the past. The bishop explained his reasons to the Vatican after three years, and the pope agreed and told the diocese to leave things that way,” added Barros.
After Batista’s death in 1934, the church continued to downplay his legacy. For decades, people were not encouraged to show their devotion to Padim Ciço. Parents were even forbidden to give their children the name Cícero or Cícera during baptisms. Yet, the large groups of pilgrims who came to visit Juazeiro do Norte throughout the year were welcomed by the local clergy.
“The ecclesiastical officials had a very strict theological understanding at those times. They did not understand the exaggerated — and at times superstitious — practices of that very humble people from the sertão,” Barros said.
But over the years the pilgrims’ faith also matured, he said. The Juazeiro do Norte’s pilgrim’s pastoral ministry became an active force and promoted a closer relationship between Padim Ciço’s devotees and the formal Catholic world.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, a new generation of bishops began a process to rehabilitate Padim Ciço in the Vatican. Documents and reports produced by researchers such as Casimiro were sent to Rome to demonstrate Batista’s integrity as a man of faith and his relevance as a holy figure in Brazil.
“He was not ‘pardoned’ like Galileo Galilei, for instance, but there was a reconciliation,” Casimiro explained.
The Vatican did not have any formal complaint against Batista but never acted to stimulate the beatification process, according to Barros.
A few years ago, the new bishop of Crato, Magnus Lopes, decided to ask Pope Francis directly about Padim Ciço’s sainthood.
“The Catholic Church is going through a synodal process. How could we remain deaf to the pilgrim’s cry regarding their wish to revere Padim Ciço? That certainly touched Pope Francis’ heart,” Barros said.
The Vatican responded to the message with the authorization to launch the cause of Batista’s beatification. In November, the Diocese of Crato will begin to receive testimonies concerning Padim Ciço’s miracles. There will certainly be thousands of them.
“My mother was very ill a few years ago. No physician seemed to be able to discover what was her disease. I begged Padim Ciço for a diagnosis,” Dinalva Rodrigues, 45, told Religion News Service. A resident of Teresina, Piauí state (360 miles west from Juazeiro do Norte), Rodrigues has been visiting Padim Ciço’s city every year since she was 18. With the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to skip two years.
After her prayers, her mother was finally diagnosed with diabetes. “Her sugar levels were finally controlled and she has not been infected with the novel coronavirus — thanks to Padim Ciço,” she said. Now, she plans to visit Juazeiro again to thank her benefactor.
Although most of Batista’s devotees are from the northeast part of Brazil, he is a popular figure throughout the country, mostly because millions of northeasterners have migrated away from the region since the 1950s — primarily to the larger cities in the southeast — in search of better work opportunities.
“I have been living in São Paulo for 28 years and I could never come back to Juazeiro. I used to visit it every year with my grandparents, who were great devotees of Padim Ciço,” said Adeilva Delmondes, who was born and raised in Ouricuri, Pernambuco state (84 miles south of Juazeiro do Norte).
Delmondes had severe headaches as a child. Her grandmother told her to wash her hair with the holy water from Juazeiro do Norte. The headaches disappeared after that, Delmondes said. Since then, she and her family have received numerous graces with Padim Ciço’s intercession, she said.
“The other day, a fire broke out in the house of my neighbor, who is a hoarder. My son and my husband called me to leave our house, but I stayed there praying to Padim Ciço. The fire was extinguished before hitting us,” Delmondes said.
Barros said that when the collection process starts, they will probably be looking for reports of terminally ill patients who were cured, but “all kinds of graces will be useful to compose Padim Ciço’s records.”