On March 17, for the first time in 162 years, the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes closed its doors as the French government placed the country under quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19.
While the faithful worldwide were also being deprived of sacraments because of the pandemic, the chaplains of the emblematic shrine made sure it remained a vibrant lung of prayer for the sick and all those in need by organizing a continuous chain of prayer at the grotto, broadcast on the sanctuary’s website.
The novena to the Immaculate (March 17-25), convened to ask protection against the virus and which was broadcast from the grotto in four different languages, was prayerfully followed by tens of thousands of people every day.
“The spiritual communion was so strong that the chaplains had the idea of organizing a landmark event for the end of the lockdown, which they knew would end in May,” Msgr. Xavier d’Arodes, vice rector of the sanctuary, told the Register.
They picked the date of July 16, which commemorates the 18th and last apparition of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at the grotto of Lourdes, to officially celebrate the revival of the sanctuary with the pilgrims.
However, when they realized that the health crisis did not seem to be lessening, and that many borders were still closed until further notice, they switched gears to a virtual pilgrimage so that every member of the faithful can attend, even remotely.
Meaningful Spiritual Experience
“Lourdes United,” which is billed as the very first online world pilgrimage, will offer a 15-hour live program from 7am to 10pm Paris time — broadcast on the shrine’s website as well as via many Catholic media, including EWTN — in 10 languages, peppered with celebrations, processions and Rosaries, bearing the prayer intentions sent to the sanctuary’s website. A two-hour TV show will focus on personal testimonies of religious and lay personalities whose lives were changed by their experience in Lourdes, and will offer a complete tour of this place of healing.
The organizers felt compelled to create an occasion of unity between people from all around the world to reflect on the deep meaning of such a trial.
“The spiritual communion that we are able to generate through the digital world lately is not neutral nor merely artificial,” Msgr. d’Arodes said, noting that the traffic on the shrine’s social-media pages increased fivefold over the past few months.
“People come to see us today, thanking us for helping them go through the most difficult moments of the pandemic, praying the Rosary while someone they loved passed away,” he continued. “This shows that, thanks to the various media on which we were present, families now feel they know us and that they have a direct relationship with us.”
While stressing that “nothing will ever replace the personal experience of a physical pilgrimage,” he pointed out that this digital approach “gives them an opportunity to make [themselves] present to those who cannot come to the shrine,” referring in particular to the thousands of Americans who had planned to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes this summer and had to cancel their trips because of the pandemic.
Msgr. D’Arodes, who was educated in the United States and had a ministry there, makes no secret of his special affection for his American brothers in Christ, for whom he has been constantly lighting a candle in the American Chapel of the Basilica of the Rosary during the pandemic, to make sure they were spiritually present as the beloved Marian shrine.
“It is so impressive to pray alone inside the grotto, knowing that you have received over 30,000 intentions of prayer in all languages during the day,” Msgr. d’Arodes added, expressing his conviction that this health crisis, reducing the sanctuary for a few weeks to outreach in its grotto only by its chaplains, made Lourdes recover its very heart, as priests were focusing on their original duty: receiving intentions of prayer and messages of all kinds and conveying them to the grotto’s altar for prayer at Mass.
And thousands of prayers have already poured into the sanctuary’s mailboxes for the big event on July 16.
“We must take the modern world as it is, with its strengths and weaknesses, and this e-pilgrimage is our best option to do so,” Mathias Terrier, director of the communication office of the shrine, told the Register. “This tool that we have at our disposal can also make people want to come in pilgrimage when it is possible again, and, in this sense, this event has a missionary potential, too.”
Supporting the Sanctuary
This large-scale event will also be an occasion to launch an appeal for donations, as the numerous cancelations of pilgrimages caused a significant financial loss to the sanctuary, which employs 320 people, as well as the whole city of Lourdes.
Indeed, according to the shrine’s communication office, the current average number of pilgrims visiting the site is approximately 4,000 every day, while visitors usually comprise between 15,000 and 20,000 daily. Visits are mostly individual ones, and the pilgrims almost exclusively come from other regions of France and Western Europe.
“Lourdes depends on donations, and therefore the recent lockdown is having a big economic impact,” Terrier said, noting that the loss is estimated to be 8 million euros for the shrine, an amount that should be 10 times higher at the local level, when considering the loss suffered by its infrastructures, transport facilities, restaurants, hotels and shops.
“The shrine is the heart of the city of Lourdes. It is the place where everything converges. But so many families live in its surroundings and contribute to its functioning by providing services and accommodations for pilgrims,” he continued.
“We, people of the sanctuary, are necessarily integral with this territory, as this holy site could never welcome the millions of people that flock into Lourdes every year without these local businesses.”
Right now, most hotels and service establishments are still closed, awaiting the return of pilgrims. “The situation is progressing, but people are still very prudent,” Msgr. d’Arodes said, concluding that this time is also a good opportunity for them “to abandon themselves to divine Providence.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Europe correspondent.