LOURDES, France — Nearly 150 years after Bernadette Soubirous saw a “beautiful Lady” here, people are still being cured at Lourdes.
Feb. 11 is the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, the title of Our Lady at this site of spring of water that has been attributed with countless miracle cures.
The Catholic Church has officially recognized 67 miracle cures here, and of these only four have taken place since 1978. But with a new streamlined investigation process, the Church may recognize more than ever in years to come.
Dr. Patrick Theillier, director of the Lourdes Medical Bureau, and Bishop Jacques Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes, the co-chairman of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL), have initiated a new approach to granting official recognition of healings received through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The new category of officially recognized healings, developed over the last few years in discussions among the international doctors of the committee, will not supplant the current category of miracles in the canonical sense. Before a Lourdes cure is declared to be a miracle by the Church, it must be examined by a canonical commission in the diocese of the individual who was healed. If a cure is approved by the diocesan commission, the diocesan bishop decides whether it should be recognized as miraculous.
“In the light of current events, the bishop can decide or abstain from recognizing the ‘miraculous’ character of this cure,” the Lourdes shrine’s website states in its section on miracles.
But it will allow for many declared healings that, for various reasons, cannot be included under the canonical category of miracles but are found to merit recognition as exceptional cures after intense scrutiny by the medical bureau and by spiritual authorities.
Not everyone is pleased with the new approach. According to critics, the new classification could generate suspicions that the Church is not being sufficiently cautious in reaching judgments about the legitimacy of claimed miracles.
“It was inevitable that there would be people who would not understand,” Bishop Perrier told the Register, “but we felt we could not continue to do nothing indefinitely because there would be people who would not understand.”
The motivation for the change? In part, said Bishop Perrier, it reflects a shift in the field of medicine from “a kind of medicine that treats the case to one that treats the person.”
“This is the idea I would like to develop,” he said. “What are we healing — the illness or the sick person?”
The need for this new category occurred not as a result of a dwindling number of reported healings — there were 40 spontaneously declared cures in 2005 — but rather as a result of the increasing difficulty that confronts modern doctors when they try to apply outdated criteria for assessing the validity of miraculous cures.
For example, one of the “Lambertini” criteria in use at Lourdes since 1908 states that “no medication can have been given, or, if it is established that medication has been prescribed, that it has had no useful effect.”
Bishop Perrier, in an editorial published in the March 23, 2006 issue of the diocesan Bulletin Religieux, explained that this criterion “renders impossible … the recognition of any miraculous cure of cancer … since it will always be possible to say that finally it is the treatment that effected the cure.”
The result is that fewer and fewer cases can be accepted for investigation. Or, if they are, even highly credible cases must be rejected even though prior to the moment of healing at Lourdes, their symptoms had been resistant to all attempts at treatment for several years and the healing was against every expectation.
The consequence of this strict approach is that only a tiny fraction of the thousands of reported cures that have occurred at Lourdes since the Virgin Mary first appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in February 1858 have been classified as miracles.
Professor François-Bernard Michel, co-chairman of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes and a member of the French Academy of Medicine, said in a March 2006 statement “there is no sick person coming to Lourdes who has never received treatment, and that is how it should be. This pushing forward of medicine has achieved such a degree of sophistication that it is more difficult than ever to appreciate in a cure what is applicable to treatment and what is attributable to an inexplicable medical phenomenon.”
In his statement, Michel described the stages of recognition for the new classification of healings.
First, a “declared cure,” if it passes a primary evaluation, becomes an “unexpected cure.” After a study including an examination of medical documents before and after the cure to determine that there was an indisputable change and to see if the cure shows signs of being completely out of character with the development of the illness, the “unexpected cure” is then classified as a “confirmed cure.”
If a cure conforms to all these criteria, its “exceptional character” is established.
On Jan. 25, the committee announced that it had confirmed its first cure of “exceptional character.” According to a statement posted on the Lourdes shrine’s website, it involved a 56-year-old woman.
The woman’s name and the details of her cure were not disclosed, but the statement said the CMIL’s finding had been reported to her diocesan bishop.
When the new classification was first discussed, some worried that it would constitute a brand of “miracle-lite,” as an article published in the Guardian Unlimited put it. But in fact, all cures will continue to undergo the rigor of investigation — including a long waiting period — for which the Lourdes medical committee has become renowned.
Dr. Theillier, who is doctor-in-residence at the shrine, said that one of the exciting things about the development is that it will allow scientific and spiritual investigations to proceed simultaneously. Previously, the medical investigation was conducted in its entirety before the spiritual investigation began.
Theillier hopes that the new approach will encourage pilgrims who think they have received a miraculous healing to come to the medical bureau. He said the older method tended to deter pilgrims from presenting themselves to the bureau.
Kathleen McCann filed this report from Lourdes, France.