By Jim Dunning
Strange as it may seem, out of 7000 cases recorded over the past 150 years by the Medical Bureau of Lourdes, only 67 have been officially recognised as miraculous by the Church. This is undoubtedly because of the strict criteria applied to all the cases put forward. Nevertheless, Lourdes is besieged year after year by thousands of pilgrims, many of whom are seeking spiritual rather than physical relief. There has been criticism of the vulgar display of religious objects in the local shops, but this should not be allowed to detract from the value of the pilgrimages. No one goes to Lourdes simply to buy religious goods.
Why are so few cures accepted by the Church as miraculous? The reason is that the requirements set out by the International Medical Committee of Lourdes for the validation of a miracle cure are extremely strict. The illness in question must be serious and the cure sudden and complete. There must be no need for convalescence. Another requirement is that no regular medication has been given since this would give rise to the possibility that the cure resulted from the treatment. Ironically, once a person is completely cured, it is no longer possible for tests to be carried out to verify the existence of the illness!
There is, of course, previous documentation to be considered with a view to establishing the medical history. And an assessment of the patient’s personality will help to eliminate false claims, genuine illusion or hysteria. A judgement is then made as to whether the cure is beyond the usual medical prognosis for the particular illness. When all these steps have been followed, a decision will be reached to either take no action or to undertake further examination, or to record the event as an “unexpected cure” for subsequent validation. The Bishop of the patient’s diocese, together with a doctor assigned by that Bishop, will then be advised of the result of the preliminary examination.
At Stage Two of the process, professional experts on the Committee compare the medical documents from before the alleged cure with those issued afterwards to ensure that there has been a definite change from a precisely diagnosed illness to a recovered state of health. What was earlier labelled an “unexpected cure” can then be designated a “confirmed cure”. According to the findings, each case is filed under the heading: ‘no further action’, or is validated under the heading: ‘supported and confirmed’.
The Third Stage sees the official recognition by the whole Committee of the exceptional nature of the cure in the light of the present state of scientific knowledge. The cure must not have a medical explanation; indeed, it must be seen to have occurred contrary to all medical predictions. The Bishop of Tarbes & Lourdes then forwards the complete file to the Bishop of the cured person’s diocese. That Bishop will then ‘canonically’ recognise the cure as miraculous on behalf of the Church.
It is clear that those cases which succeed in being officially recognised as miraculous have undergone a rigorous screening. There seems little doubt that many of the non-recognised cures are also genuine, in spite of their having failed to clear every obstacle in the prudently strict path to canonical recognition. That the Church is cautious in declaring a cure is understandable, even commendable.
An examination of the accepted cures associated with Lourdes is interesting. Most have taken place at Lourdes itself, but some have occurred elsewhere, either through prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes or through application of water originating from the Grotto.
Not surprisingly, the first cures were recorded soon after the start of the apparitions in February, 1858. The first was that of a local married woman named Catharine Latapie who had a paralysed right hand caused by a fallen tree. On 1st March, 1858, less than three weeks after the first apparition, this 38-year old mother made an early morning visit to the Grotto and bathed her arm in the small pool fed by the spring first unearthed by Bernadette. Immediately her fingers were cured and she returned home to give birth the same day to her third child. Twenty-four years later that child became a priest.
More newsworthy at the time was the cure of a local quarry worker aged 54. Louis Bouriette had lost the sight in his right eye after an explosion in a mine. He asked for some water from the same source, and after praying earnestly and bathing his eye several times, he discovered that his sight was completely restored. This was in March, 1858, only weeks after the start of the apparitions.
A sick boy of 16 named Henri Busquet was refused permission to visit Lourdes by his parents, but a neighbour provided him with some Lourdes water and the agonising throat ulcer caused by tuberculosis disappeared completely. This was only ten weeks after the first apparition and was the first miraculous cure attributed to Lourdes from outside the area. There have been many other such cures, though not all have been authenticated.
To counter any suggestion that psychology might play a role in these miraculous cures, one has only to point to those cases involving very young children who could not possibly have expected any result from their experience at Lourdes. The most dramatic of these was that of a Lourdes child named Justin Bouhort. He was not yet two years old and on the point of death when his mother said a prayer and plunged him into the icy water at the grotto, to the consternation of onlookers who screamed in protest. She took him home and put him to bed. Within days his health improved. This happened less than five months after the first apparition. Justin lived long enough to attend Bernadette’s canonization in Rome on 8th December, 1933.
A more recent cure took place on 9th October, 1987, when Jean-Pierre Bely, aged 51, was suddenly cured of multiple sclerosis while participating in a Rosary Pilgrimage to Lourdes. He enjoyed perfect health for the next 18 years before his death in 2005. Other recent cures are still under investigation.
In the intervening years many cures have been effected, either at Lourdes or elsewhere, frequently after immersion in the shrine’s baths, or through the application of water from the Grotto’s spring, combined always with prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes. The water itself has been analysed and shown to have no therapeutic value. In the shrine’s history eight cures have been recorded as coinciding with the blessing of the sick by the Blessed Sacrament during or immediately after the Eucharistic Procession.
Statistics relating to the 67 officially recognised cures make interesting reading. No less than 55 of those concerned were French, 6 were Italian, 3 were Belgian, while Germany, Austria and Switzerland accounted for the remaining 3. Some 80% of those cured were females, among whom were 8 nuns. And 6 people were cured through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes without coming to the shrine. The most common illness recorded during the first 60 years was tuberculosis, though the whole range of sickness has been represented. The youngest person was almost two years old, the oldest being 64. [Note that these figures are from the officially recognised list, however over 7000 cases of cures have been reported, as previously mentioned.]
In case it might be thought that the number of cures at Lourdes is diminishing, it is worth pointing out that as recently as 2005, no fewer than forty ‘spontaneous declarations’ of cures were examined by the International Medical Committee. Five of these cases were considered worthy of further examination and yet another was confirmed as ‘exceptional’ after 13 years of restored health. No wonder the shrine at Lourdes continues to attract many thousands of visitors each year from every part of the globe. Bernadette, that most modest of saints, must be very pleased.
-Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
Click here to go to part 1 of this story, St Bernadette and Lourdes.