After a series of recent terrorist attacks in France, security is being stepped up at Lourdes for the feast of the Assumption.
The prefect of the Pyrénées region, Beatrice Lagarde, says the authorities even considered cancelling the Mass and procession next Monday, which is normally attended by 25,000 people.
Instead, most entrances will be closed, and attendees will have to pass through security gates, where their bags will be checked. Several events have been adapted: the procession will start within the site, rather than in the town as usual.
There will also be 250 security staff at the site over the next two weeks, including police, paramilitary offices and a bomb disposal unit.
Roads surrounding the Lourdes site will be closed to traffic, and bins will be replaced with transparent plastic bags.
Lagarde told Europe1 radio: “The faithful have the right to access this place. On the other hand, everything is being done to make the area secure.”
It comes after the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel by two Islamists in Normandy last month, as well as the attacks on Paris and Nice in which scores of people were killed.
The Assumption, the celebration of the Virgin Mary being taken up into heaven body and soul at the end of her life, is a national holiday in France. Most banks and businesses are closed, and many towns and villages hold festivals.
Dr Michael Moran, a member of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes and Chief Medical Officer of the Down and Connor diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes, said that although it was “sad” to see barricades on the roads around the Sanctuary, there was now a general acceptance in Europe – especially France – that a terrorist attack might happen.
Dr Moran added: “I was in Lourdes at the time of the tragic terrorist attack in Nice, on Bastille day. Whilst at the torchlight procession in the Sanctuary, witnessing such goodness in humanity all around me, the terrible news of what was happening in Nice began to filter through. Evil does exist in our world, and we can no longer hope that anywhere will remain immune to the threat of terrorism.
“The spirit of Lourdes, and true faith, should not be threatened by terrorism however, and although we live in terrible times, goodness will prevail over evil. Until then, we defer to the protection provided by Mme Lagarde and her team, and the authorities in the Sanctuary.”