France's Lourdes Roman Catholic shrine, which usually attracts millions of pilgrims every year, on Thursday organised the first ever e-pilgrimage designed to gather people from over the world, but virtually.
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 two-hour celebration took place during the afternoon from the Grotto, to mark what the faithful believe is the eighteenth and last apparition of Mary to young girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
The Grotto, a cave, is 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 will also be in charge of responding in different languages on social media to priests who answer 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 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.
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 site is expecting an eight-million-euro ($9 million) deficit for 2020 due to the pandemic, and is using the e-pilgrimage as an opportunity to call for funds.