World's first e-pilgrimage at France's Lourdes shrine

TOULOUSE, FRANCE (AFP) – France’s Lourdes Roman Catholic shrine, on Thursday (July 16) organised its first ever e-pilgrimage following the coronavirus crisis, drawing a virtual audience of 80 million from around the world.

Lourdes is usually thronged in summer with pilgrims who travel, sometimes across the world, to light a candle in the sanctuary where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared.

But with flights grounded, many international borders still closed and social distancing rules in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lourdes had to find another way.

The sanctuary in southwest France broadcast mass and prayers all day in five different languages on television and social media for the e-pilgrimage, dubbed “Lourdes United”.

A live celebration took place during the afternoon from the Grotto, to mark what the faithful believe is the eighteenth and last apparition of Mary to appear, to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in 1858.

The Grotto, is the cave where Soubirous is said to have seen the mother of Jesus.

The site also boasts a spring with reputed healing powers, from which pilgrims drink.

Even virtually, “there is a real communion between pilgrims,” said Olivier Ribadeau-Dumas, rector of the Sanctuary of Lourdes.

The anniversary is the “opportunity for all those who are far to get together, even if it will never replace coming on a pilgrimage,” he added.

A team of chaplains were put in charge of responding in different languages on social media about prayer intentions “but also to questions relating to the possibilities of pilgrimages to Lourdes or questions regarding faith,” said Mathias Terrier, head of communications for Lourdes.

Like many religious sites, Lourdes has turned to technology to maintain links with devotees after it was closed for the first time ever during France’s strict virus lockdown.

TV Lourdes viewership had already increased, with sometimes almost 150,000 views per day, while the sanctuary’s following on Facebook Live jumped over 400 percent and its number of new Twitter and Instagram followers skyrocketed.

“During lockdown, we clearly saw that the sanctuary – closed to the public – had never had so many visits by any means available. We understood that we had to widen these means,” said Terrier.

However Thursday’s special events,, a total of 15 hours of live footage, attracted a total audience of 80 million, from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, according to the organisers.

Lourdes reopened on May 16 after being closed for two months, but almost all of the traditional summer pilgrimages have been cancelled and the sanctuary is only accepting individual pilgrims.

“The sanctuary runs practically exclusively on donations and particularly on donations given at the site,” said Terrier.

The situation is serious, not just for the pilgrimage site but for the whole area, he added.

The site is expecting an €8 million (S$12 million) deficit for 2020 due to the pandemic, and is using the e-pilgrimage as an opportunity to call for funds.

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