The famous French writer Emile Zola first visited Lourdes in September 1891 and was taken aback by the number of pilgrims that visited the shrine of Santa Maria. He returned the following year during August, which is the busiest period for pilgrimages, and spent time with the pilgrims, carrying out interviews and observations to form the basis of his novel, ‘Lourdes’ which was published in 1894.
During his visit Zola watched the Ave Maria evening procession and described it in his novel:
”Thirty thousand candle lights were burning there, still and ever revolving, quickening their sparkles under the vast calm heavens where the planets had grown pale. A luminous glow ascended in company with the strains of the hymn which never ceased. And the roar of voices incessantly repeating the refrain of 'Ave, Ave, Ave Maria' was like the very crackling of those hearts of fire which were burning away in prayers in order that souls might be saved. “
Every day from April to October at 5pm the Lourdes pilgrims respond to the request of Santa Maria by gathering for the Eucharist Procession. The procession begins at the open-air altar on the prairie across the river from the grotto and is led by sick pilgrims followed by a priest, bishop or cardinal carrying a the Holy Eucharist.
Then at 9PM the pilgrims from all over the world gather for the procession of Ave Maria of Lourdes. The procession begins near the Grotto and continues around the esplanade ending in the Rosary square. The procession is led by sick pilgrims followed by volunteers carrying a replica of the statue of Santa Maria. The focus of this candle lit procession is the rosary. All five decades are recited, usually in a variety of languages. The Lourdes Hymn is also sung, with verses in different languages. Intercessions may be invoked followed by the Laudate Mariam.
In the serenity of the evening, each pilgrim carries his or her own personal intentions as the Ave Maria song was repeated over and over during the procession lit by thousands of candle lights. As Emile Zola wrote in the novel: “The roar of voices incessantly repeating the refrain of 'Ave, Ave, Ave Maria’, penetrates one's very skin. It seems to me as though my whole body were at last singing it.”