Under heavy security, Catholic pilgrims visit Lourdes shrine

Watched over by French soldiers and police, Catholic pilgrims from around the world prayed together for healing and peace Monday at a grotto shrine in Lourdes where exceptional security greeted the spiritual travelers due to recent extremist attacks.

A helicopter circled overhead as thousands of visitors bearing candles and banners streamed toward the celebrated grotto and the sprawling plaza of the basilica, apparently undeterred by new security restrictions or the recent attacks.


A special prayer was held for France and for the more than 200 people killed by "the blind violence of terrorism" in Islamic extremist attacks over the past year and a half, including a priest whose throat was slit last month.

The prayer extended to the soldiers and police officers patrolling the train station, town center and inside the sanctuary at Lourdes, where a 19th-century village girl said she had visions of the Virgin Mary.

The site in southern France near the Spanish border annually draws pilgrims of all kinds, including sick and disabled believers hoping for a cure from the famed spring water in the Lourdes grotto.

Crowds gathered throughout the day at a series of outdoor Masses in multiple languages celebrating the Feast of the Assumption, when according to Catholic belief, Jesus' mother Mary ascended into heaven.

French authorities already had been planning extra security for the holiday, but concerns mounted after a series of attacks in July around Europe—notably one on July 26 in northwest France, in which two extremists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group stormed a morning Mass, slit an elderly priest's throat and took nuns and parishioners hostage.

The prayer for France extended to victims of extremism in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, and persecuted Christians everywhere.

"It is all of humanity that is being trampled," The Rev. Fabien Lejeusne said, urging believers "to build bridges, and not walls."

Lourdes officials refused to cancel this year's pilgrimage, although some other summer festivals around France have been dropped amid security fears.

To reach the Lourdes sanctuary, pilgrims proffered up their bags for repeated checks, and authorities funneled visitors through three access points, reduced from past years.

Roads were closed to allow pedestrians to reach the site unhindered. Vehicle attacks are a new concern after a driver rammed his truck into Bastille Day revelers in Nice last month, killing 85.

Petronella Davis of London, 62, called the security measures "a good thing," but added, "I don't feel any less safe than I used to."

Gloria Munoz Fernandez, a 68-year-old pilgrim from Madrid, said, "If you believe in God you don't need this sort of protection; however, for me it (the army) is a good protection, it helps you to be more at ease."

Nearly 300 extra forces were brought to Lourdes—including mobile intervention teams, soldiers, bomb squads and canine units—to help local forces, raising the overall security presence to more than 500.

The Catholic Church has recognized dozens of miracles at Lourdes since villager Bernadette Soubirous said she had visions of Mary while gathering stones in the grotto in 1858.

Among those leading ceremonies at the Lourdes festivities is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, a top French church official who faced accusations this year of covering up for pedophile priests. He denies wrongdoing.

French President Francois Hollande marked Assumption—a national holiday in a country that is officially secular but traditionally Roman Catholic—by announcing a trip to see Pope Francis on Wednesday. They are expected to discuss the church attack and bilateral relations.


Charlton reported from Paris.


Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis has appointed 16 members (eight men and eight women) to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 17, 2018
This time the victims themselves are not having it. From the moment the first shots rang out, they captured the horror and broadcast it, forced the nation to confront it and talk about it.
Kevin ClarkeFebruary 16, 2018

Given the moment we are in, you might think a lot of shows on television would be trying to talk about current events or “America” in some way. But in point of fact, there aren’t that many. And even fewer are doing it well.

Jim McDermottFebruary 16, 2018
A conversation with Liel Leibovitz and Stephanie Butnick on faith, fasting and podcasting
Olga SeguraFebruary 16, 2018