21 May 2020, The Tablet

Pilgrimages go virtual under lockdown

Pilgrimages go virtual under lockdown

Social distancing at the Shrine of Fatima in Portugal, which is closed to most pilgrims.
Global Media Group/SIPA USA/PA Images

British and Irish Catholics prevented from going on pilgrimage by lockdown restrictions are going virtual, with online services replacing now-cancelled physical liturgies.

In Middlesborough diocese, hundreds of faithful have been participating in a “Walk of Hope”, collectively “walking” around 65 miles a day through England and France. The progress of the pilgrimage from Middlesborough to Lourdes has been tracked in a Facebook group with 800 members. The group also provides daily prayers and live-streamed recitations of the Rosary every evening to participants.

The virtual initiative has replaced the archdioceses traditional pilgrimage to Lourdes, which has taken place every year since 1955. Live-streamed services will replace the physical services pilgrims would have attended in normal times, and even the famous torchlit procession to Lourdes is planned to be realised remotely, through webcams, each night.

From Saturday 23 May to Thursday 28 May, services will be streamed from Hull, Redcar, Whitby and York, and two services will be shared with the Archdiocese of Birmingham’s pilgrimage, which usually visits Lourdes at the same time as Middlesborough each year.

Other dioceses across Britain and Ireland organising virtual Lourdes pilgrimages include the diocese of Armagh, which has released several youtube videos with reflections on the Lourdes apparitions in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lourdes shrine itself has been reaching out to believers through social media after being closed for the first time in its history on March 16th this year.  The sanctuary's following on Facebook Live jumped over 400 per cent and the number of new Twitter and Instagram followers skyrocketed following the closure, with the shrine broadcasting services by social media and through local television networks.

Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland, a site of Christian pilgrimage for over a thousand years, has decided to delay its usual pilgrimage season in light of lockdown restrictions. With the three day pilgrimages on Station Island delayed until lockdown restrictions are relaxed, the centre is offering online one-day retreats through its website and social media profiles.

The new approaches taken by pilgrimage organisers follow on from the use by the church of new technologies in response to lockdown restrictions on physical services. Middlesborough Diocese launched the UK’s first “Dial-a-mass” service earlier this year, and churches across the country have moved to livestreaming services, with some reporting record numbers of attendees.

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