“I have heard of lots of tragedies, attacks,” Claire Emmanuelle of Paris said. “So we've come to entrust the entire world to the Virgin Mary”.
About 25,000 pilgrims from across Europe, the Middle East and Asia braved rainy skies to attend the annual four-day pilgrimage at the shrine, one of the biggest dates in the Christian calendar, marking the ascent into Heaven of the Virgin Mary.
In keeping with tougher security protocols in terror-scarred France, 300 police officers and soldiers were deployed to protect the worshippers, who were searched upon entry to the site.
About 30 security force members surrounded the sanctuary itself – where Mary is said to have appeared to a shepherd girl in 1858 – and many of the streets around it were closed to traffic.
While the security apparatus was reduced from last year – when 500 police and soldiers were mobilized a month after the Bastille Day attack in Nice and the murder of a priest, Jacques Hamel – authorities preferred to remain vigilant.
“We are still at a heightened threat level and it is widespread on the national territory,” the town's governor Beatrice Lagarde told reporters on Friday, as she explained security details for the celebrations.
“Even if Lourdes is not necessarily targeted, we are still taking it into account”.
France has been under a state of emergency since the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and has seen a string of attacks from the Islamic State.
In the latest, on August 9th, six soldiers were injured – none seriously – after a BMW quickly accelerated and struck them outside their barracks in a quiet street in the Levallois-Perret area of Paris.
Cardinal Fabien Lejeusne, director of the Lourdes pilgrimage, said the security was necessary.
It “allows pilgrims who have come seeking a climate of serenity, of prayer, to find what they're looking for,” he said.
Worshippers seemed undeterred by the extra security.
“We have come to ask the Virgin Mary to bring peace in Iraq and the entire world,” said Najat, who travelled from Iraq.
Lourdes attracts about six million people a year, making it one of the biggest sites of Catholic pilgrimage in the world.
The shrine is particularly popular with the sick and disabled, who come to bathe in a spring in the cave where Saint Bernadette said she saw Mary, believing the water to have healing properties.
By Harmonie Pacione