Virtual Easter as virus closes Lourdes shrine

A priest holds a service at the deserted Grotte de Massabielle in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes

Shuttered by the coronavirus outbreak, France's Lourdes Roman Catholic shrine on Sunday marked the start of "Holy Week", an event that normally draws millions of pilgrims every year, with not a soul in sight.

Its doors closed since March 17, for the first time in its history, the sanctuary in the southwest France is instead reaching out to the faithful using television and social media.

"It is certain that for us, like for all Catholics, the Holy Week and Easter will be experienced in a very special way this year," said Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, rector of the Sanctuary of Lourdes.

Holy Week leads up to Easter Sunday on April 11 and this years falls in the middle of France's nationwide lockdown to stem the tide of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 7,500 people in the country to date.

For nine consecutive days, Lourdes priests and chaplains have prayed non-stop -- from 7:00 am to 8:30 pm -- in a show of devotion relayed on TV Lourdes, Youtube, Facebook Live, Catholic channels in France and Italy, and the Catholic EWTN network that broadcasts to the English-speaking world.

The broadcasts have reached as far as Latin America, the Philippines and Indonesia, according to Ribadeau Dumas.

During the week starting Easter Sunday, the sanctuary will continue to broadcast live ceremonies, including several rosary prayers every day in numerous languages.

- Anguish and anxiety -

"Since the pilgrims can no longer come to us, we invite ourselves into their homes so that they may be sustained in confinement and also in their anguish and anxiety," said Ribadeau Dumas.

In nine days, TV Lourdes viewership has increased threefold, with sometimes almost 150,000 views per day, while the sanctuary's following on Facebook Live jumped over 400 percent and the number of new Twitter and Instagram followers has skyrocketed.

The Lourdes sanctuary was erected around a shrine to French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, to whom Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared several times in 1858.

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

Normally flooded with religious tourists over this period, the sanctuary and the cave where Soubirous is said to have seen the mother of Jesus, are today deserted.

"We will experience Holy Week thanks to the broadcasts. We are in communion with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims watching us in many countries," said Ribadeau Dumas.

The site has also launched "spiritual pilgrimages," with chaplains lighting votive candles on behalf of pilgrims who cannot be there in person.

"There are traditional acts at Lourdes: touching the rock in the cave, the water, and the light" of the candles, said Ribadeau Dumas.

"Today, we are unable to send water or to have people touch the rock, but the light is a symbol that is still possible."