In 1858, a peasant girl in Lourdes, France, Bernadette Soubirous, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary standing next to a rose bush at the entrance to a grotto. The Lady appeared to Benadette seven times from February 11 to July 16. Pilgrims began to go to Lourdes, drinking from a spring in the grotto for its reputed healing power.
An estimated 250 million pilgrims have visited the shrine since 1860, coming the whole year round, but especially on February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This year, however, all pilgrimages to Lourdes have now been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The daily Blessed Sacrament processions at Lourdes could not be held at precisely the period — from February to July – that Bernadette Soubirous saw the Virgin at Lourdes in 1858. Thus last Thursday, the Lourdes Shrine organized its first-ever e-pilgrimage, drawing a virtual audience of 80 million around the world.
The sanctuary broadcast Mass and prayers all day in five different languages on television and social media. Even virtually, there is a real communion among the pilgrims around the world, said Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, rector of the Sanctuary of Lourdes. “It was an opportunity for all those who are far to get together, even if it will never replace coming on a pilgrimage,” he said.
The pandemic has led to many changes in religious celebrations and ceremonies around the world. Pope Francis himself cancelled his usual daily message from the second floor of his home to the thousands of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square below. He now reaches out to the faithful via television.
Lourdes, like many other religious sites, has now turned to technology to maintain its links with its devotees, reaching many more of them, in fact, with some 150,000 views per day. It is also on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram. The special celebration last Thursday attracted a total audience of 80 million all over the world – in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
The pandemic continues to spread around the world, with cases and deaths rising most heavily in the United States, in Brazil, in the United Kingdom, in India and Indonesia. The Philippines has not suffered as much as these countries, but our own cases exceeded 60,000 last week and could reach 80,000 by the end of the month. Vaccines are now undergoing final tests in many countries, but the expectation is that none will be ready before the end of this year.
With this dire prospect and with coronavirus cases and deaths continuing to rise around the world, we must be ready to face the rest of this year with continuing restrictions on our daily activities, on the workings of government, on the operations of businesses, and on religious rites like Sunday Masses and celebrations like our recent observance of Lent and the Holy Week.
We may have to plan for a Christmas without our traditional church rites and holiday cheer but it could be a truly worldwide celebration via virtual ceremonies and programs, like the Lourdes e-pilgrimage last Thursday.