Some 15,000 people, according to the shrine’s count, marched shortly after dark, torch in hand, behind a white statue of the Virgin Mary, chanting and reciting “Hail Marys” repeatedly.

The crowd, of all ages and of very diverse origins, was preceded by hundreds of patients 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 rising from some 3.5 million pilgrims per year before the pandemic, that figure fell to 800,000 in 2020, 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.

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.