Some 15,000 people, according to the direction of the sanctuary, marched Sunday, shortly after nightfall, torch in hand, behind a white statue of the Virgin Mary, singing and reciting many times “Hail Mary”. On Monday, a Mass of the Assumption is to take place.

The crowd was preceded by hundreds of sick people in wheelchairs.

Coming from Portugal, Edite Antunes, 67, and Maria Silva, 58, said their “emotion” to be there for the first time, especially since they could not go to the Portuguese sanctuary of Fatima since the start of the health restrictions due to Covid.

These health restrictions have greatly reduced the number of pilgrims coming to Lourdes since 2020.

After dropping from some 3.5 million pilgrims a year before the pandemic, that figure fell to 800,000 in 2020 and then to 1.6 million in 2021. They are still expected to be around 1.6 million this year, said to AFP the director of communication of the sanctuary, David Torchala.

The sanctuary, whose budget of some 30 million euros per year is financed only by donations from the faithful, must still put up to three quarters of its 320 employees on partial unemployment between September and June.

For Mr. Torchala, the sanctuary, one of the first places of Catholic pilgrimage in the world, is still “convalescent”.

-Holy water-

Among those present on Sunday were some 4,000 participants in the national pilgrimage, the most important for French Catholics, organized each year around August 15.

Since its creation in 1873, the national pilgrimage has celebrated the ascent into heaven of Mary, the mother of Christ, a belief that had already existed for centuries when Pope Pius XII established the Assumption as a dogma in 1950.

According to Catholic theology, Mary, preserved from all sin from her conception in order to give birth to the son of God, could not know the corruption due to sin after her death.

Sunday, after the procession, many faithful lined up in front of the taps of water considered holy to take it home.

While the drought makes it difficult to supply drinking water in some French towns, in Lourdes, this water considered blessed by believers will not be lacking.

The sanctuary has a system for storing water from the source of the Grotto of Massabielle where, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

During the low season, this system makes it possible to store enough water for the many pilgrims expected in the summer, explains to AFP the technical director of the sanctuary, Sébastien Maysounave.

– “Fallible” –

The water therefore flows as usual this summer from the 15 taps and remains present in the 18 fountains of the sanctuary. On the other hand, the basins, also called “swimming pools”, remain empty to limit the risks of contagion by the Covid virus. The faithful are invited to redo “the gesture of water” that Bernadette would have made at the request of the Virgin but without water.

The national pilgrimage was also an opportunity to give the floor to a dozen “great witnesses” including the president of the independent commission which revealed in October 2021 the extent of pedocrime in the French Catholic Church, Jean-Marc Safe.

For Mr. Sauvé, the Church has shown that it was “fallible, human, faulty or sinful” but there is, “beyond these faults and these betrayals, a word which it carries”.

This year, the national pilgrimage has rightly chosen as its theme “hope, which our world needs so much to overcome fear, fears, illness and uncertainties”.