As France enters a lockdown period to stop the spread of the coronavirus, following the French president’s address on the evening of March 16, the Sanctuary of Lourdes’ officials were forced to temporarily close the shrine for the very first time in its history.
While the shrine’s pools were already closed to the public Feb. 28 as a precaution, followed by the closure of the grotto on March 15 to avoid close contact between pilgrims in the confined space, the rest of the site had been accessible to the public until now.
The shrine officially closed its doors on the morning of Tuesday, March 17, which happened to be the first day of the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes for the sake of the world. Convened by the sanctuary’s apostolic delegate, Msgr. Antoine Hérouard, the novena is meant to help the faithful around the world face the current unprecedented health crisis “with as much serenity as possible and in the hope of Christ, victorious over death.”
In this interview with the Register, the rector of the Lourdes Sanctuary, Msgr. Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, explains how prayers for the sick are still carried out at the grotto and how this painful situation can be an opportunity for Catholics to collectively strengthen their faith in the protecting power of the Immaculate.
Msgr. Dumas served as the spokesman of the French bishops’ conference from 2015 to 2019. He was appointed rector of the sanctuary in October 2019.
When and how did you decide to close the whole shrine?
The sanctuary has been working in a staggered manner for a number of days now. I opened a coronavirus crisis unit on Feb. 24, and today is March 17, so a certain time has passed. We saw that more and more pilgrimages were being canceled, and we had to think of how to ensure people’s safety. Moreover, the government health measures have gotten more and more stringent over the past two weeks.
So we’ve been thinking a lot about whether we should close the shrine or not. We wanted to do it as late as possible because it is a place of prayer, where people come to implore the intercession of the Virgin Mary. But the French president’s statements last night about the country’s lockdown eventually obliged us to close the sanctuary.
Was it a legal obligation for you to completely close the sanctuary?
Our first concern here is not about what is legal, but, rather, how we all can participate in this national endeavor so that the virus doesn’t spread. So what we chose is to keep being a vibrant praying lung at the heart of the world. And for a few days now, from 7am to 8:30pm, priests, deacons and chaplains of the sanctuary will take shifts at the grotto to pray incessantly for the sick and those in need, and this prayer is being broadcast on the sanctuary’s website and several TV channels around the world.
We are, therefore, in communion with all the pilgrims that cannot come to Lourdes. We want to tell them that, even if they cannot come to us, we wish to go to them, as a lung of prayer to the Immaculate, who was protected by God and who protects the world. What’s most important to me is this prayer that continues, in a different way, involving all those who wish to be here.
How did you feel after announcing the closure of the shrine this morning, for the very first time in history?
It has been a very difficult day. I opened our novena of prayer to the Immaculate earlier today, and I was alone with our chaplain, who did the responses to the Rosary I was leading. I won’t hide the fact that I felt truly sad.
But at the same time, I had this kind of profound awareness that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people were in communion with us through technology, through social media, etc., and that they were praying this novena with us. It was so comforting.
The fact that this novena happened to start on the very day when the country went in lockdown, that is, nine days before the Solemnity of the Annunciation (March 25), is an astonishing coincidence. It seems to be a sign, as the country enters a time of tribulation.
It is a strong sign, indeed! Obviously, this novena was planned before we knew that we would have to close the whole sanctuary. We couldn’t imagine that the lockdown would happen precisely on the first day of the novena, and it is definitely a sign that invites us to get together in prayer and through prayer.
With the advance of the virus, we decided to live in a more intense way this novena that will culminate in the feast the Annunciation. March 25 is the day when Mary revealed her name to Bernadette. And the Immaculate Conception is the one who was protected by God, and Mary is the one who protects us. That is why it was so important for us to make this novena an international movement, to mark in a more special way this feast of the Annunciation in Lourdes.
A number of Catholics objected to the closure of churches in Italy and France because of the virus, and even more to the closure of the Lourdes Sanctuary, which is a pilgrimage site where faithful seek protection and miraculous healings. What would you say to them?
I would say that the first duty of a faithful Catholic is charity, which means we don’t put other people in danger. We cannot stand next to each other, in order to avoid spreading the virus, so if the sanctuary became a place where these protection rules were broken, then we wouldn’t be respecting this imperative of charity. It is as simple as that.
We must not forget that the Lourdes Sanctuary remains a powerful support to live this ordeal, by being in communion with each other to pray to the Virgin Mary. What helps me to hold out when I wake up in the morning is to imagine the end of this period and the return of pilgrims. And I am sure that a very large number of pilgrims will come to pray to Our Lady of Lourdes when it is over, to entrust to her protection those who got sick — even those who died because of this virus — but also to give thanks for everything she has done, because she never stops protecting us. I am looking forward to this time most eagerly, and I’ll be waiting for the pilgrims, just like those in this town who are committed to the welcoming of all visitors in Lourdes.
Can you bring Communion to the sick or hear confessions, if only locally and while keeping a safe distance, as is being done in Switzerland and in some cities of Italy?
Unfortunately not. We must stay confined for now, so we cannot go out. This is why our mission today is to go toward people through prayer, as they can no longer come to us.
Do you have any idea when the sanctuary will reopen to public?
We don’t know yet. I am in close contact with the prefecture and the different services of the state in order to determine when it is possible to reopen, but it is not conceivable as long as the lockdown is in force in France.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.