At the Shrine of the Holy Face in Manoppello, Italy, the August 6 Feast of the Transfiguration would have normally been marked with an outdoor fair and events in addition to the liturgies.
This year, the main evening Mass was celebrated outdoors for the first time, with all the anti-Covid measures in place, on the steps of the Basilica.
While the majority of those participating in the celebrations at Manoppello were local residents, some intrepid individuals crossed international borders to come.
44-year old Dr. Andreas Weig was one of them. After being forced to cancel a planned May visit due to the pandemic, he was glad to make it to Manoppello even if it was for the truncated Transfiguration festivities. Weig, who works as a jail physician near his home of Saint Poelten, Austria saw an opportunity and took it.
"It wasn't too complicated," he said over breakfast. He took a flight two days earlier from Vienna to Rome and then a train and taxi across the Appennines to the site after finding the local bus service was suspended.
"I still feared a bit because the numbers [of COVID-19 cases] in Austria are already rising a bit again. So, I hoped it would be possible because I thought well maybe there will be more restrictions soon. So, I think it was the best time to travel now. Who knows what will be in Autumn."
Swiss Angelo Rytz and his Hong Kong-born wife, Agatha, drove seven hours from Morbio Inferiore, Switzerland down to Manoppello for the occasion. They did a bit of second guessing before making up their minds.
"We have been here already many, many times and especially for this feast we always come and so we decided we should have to be here this year," said Angelo.
The arrival of pilgrims is a solace for the Shrine after five long months without visitors.
Fr. Carmine Cucinelli, the Rector of Manoppello's Shrine of the Holy Face, said buses are unable to fill to capacity while respecting distancing restrictions.
"We're now in August, but I think in September things will begin to improve and little-by-little we hope to return to the usual activity, so receiving many pilgrims and explaining the importance of the Holy Face to them," said Fr. Cucinelli.
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Meanwhile, at the Casa del Pellegrino pilgrim house adjacent to the shrine, employee Emanuele di Fabio says they've got 1000 fewer people passing through per week between the hotel and restaurant.
Through a black facemask, he said, "we're really feeling the absence of the pilgrim, the group, the buses… unfortunately." He's already looking ahead to next year.
"Spring of 2021 we should return to normality, as long as nothing more happens. If something happens, who knows, but we're hopeful."
"People are still scared," said Fr. Matteo Siro, provincial minister to the Capuchin friars of the Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo regions. He was also in Manoppello, presiding over the celebrations. He said there's hope to be found in marking major feasts publicly.
"Our path as Christians is marked by these strong moments which in times of COVID-19 were nullified for reasons that were beyond us. Taking up [public celebrations] again gives concrete signs of restarting, which gives comfort to people both for daily life and for our faith," said Fr. Siro.