Over 160 years ago, in 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in the small town of Lourdes, France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. A shrine soon arose at the site of the apparitions, and in the decades since, with millions of pilgrims visiting the shrine, thousands of miraculous healings and conversions have been reported.
In 2020, two years after the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, Lourdes is virtually empty. For the first time in its history, the shrine was closed to pilgrims, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it has now re-opened, health care measures mean that only a very limited number of pilgrims can visit the shrine.
In response, the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes is organizing the first ever worldwide virtual pilgrimage set for July 16, the anniversary of the final apparition to St. Bernadette. Millions of people from around the world are expected to take part through television, radio, internet and other means of social communication.
“Multi-generational and multi-cultural, the ‘Lourdes United’ e-pilgrimage will bring together all those who, in the four corners of the world, see Lourdes as a beacon of faith, commitment, sharing, and hope,” explains the website dedicated to the event. Those who participate gather together “under the sign of hope and solidarity,” it said.
The Lourdes United pilgrimage will run from 1 a.m. to 4 p.m. EDT (which is 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in Lourdes), and will feature celebrations, processions, rosaries and prayer in 10 languages. A new, live television program will be broadcast from the grotto from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. EDT, with religious and civil personalities sharing their stories of the role Lourdes plays in their lives. Speakers will also focus on themes of “solidarity, fraternity, commitment, aid, hope, and the search for meaning in life,” while live music, archive videos, and behind-the-scenes reports will help better explain the mission of the Lourdes Shrine.
Lourdes is one of the most popular Marian shrines in the world, with over 100,000 volunteers welcoming more than 5 million pilgrims and visitors — including more than 50,000 sick and disabled persons — to the shrine each year. In the face of the economic and social crisis caused by COVID-19, far fewer people will be able to make the pilgrimage this year.
Yet, in spite of travel restrictions, “hundreds of thousands of messages, cries for help, cries of suffering, but also testimonies of hope continue to reach Lourdes, hearts beating with prayer,” according to the website. “The fraternity, generosity and hope that the shrine has been carrying for 162 years has never been so essential.”
With the Lourdes United e-pilgrimage, the message of Our Lady of Lourdes will continue to resound throughout the world.
By Christopher Wells