‘Miracles of Lourdes’: New EWTN Docudrama Goes Behind the Scenes of Miracle Investigations

The show airs on EWTN at 10:00pm Eastern on Saturday Feb. 11

The author visits the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
The author visits the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. (photo: Michael O’Neill)

There are only two places in the entire Catholic world that specialize in the investigation of alleged healing miracles: the Medical Commission of the Dicastery of the Causes of Saints, where potential intercessions are examined for the canonization of might-be-saints, and Lourdes in France, the famed site of the healing waters unearthed during the visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to 14-year-old St. Bernadette Soubirous. Millions of pilgrims from around the world come to those waters every year with many claiming spiritual, emotional and even physical healings. Since the beginning of the phenomena, almost 8,000 cures have been examined at the Bureau des Constatations Médicales (Office of Medical Observations), often simply referred to in English as the Lourdes Medical Bureau.

On Feb. 11, 1858, Bernadette experienced the first of 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Perhaps there was none more important for the future life and renown of the Lourdes shrine than the ninth vision, which occurred Feb. 25 of that year. With each subsequent vision, the crowds of onlookers began to grow and the local police recorded that there were as many as 400 people gathered there that day. Bernadette was praying the Rosary and then the Virgin appeared again — this time becoming serious and somber and asking, “Would you kiss the ground for sinners?” On her knees Bernadette immediately kissed the ground. And then Our Lady told her the heart of the penitential message of Lourdes: Pray for sinners.

The Virgin Mary instructed her to drink the water of the spring, wash in it and eat the herb that grew there. Bernadette turned toward the river behind her, but the Virgin pointed where she was to look. Obediently, Bernadette began to dig in the ground near the grotto, to find the water where she was to wash. She dug three or four times and finally found water. First mud, then a clear-running stream, soon emerged, forming a small pond from which she drank and washed her face. She then ate some of the grass or herbs at Mary’s request, dirtying her face in the process, much to the confusion and dismay of the onlookers who began to be convinced that the young visionary was mentally unstable.

A few people who remained at the Grotto afterward noticed that water continued to trickle from the little hole made by Bernadette, and it was forming a line of moisture running toward the cave. Later that day, other people were there who knew nothing of what had taken place in the morning. They, too, noticed a newly created spring.

By the following morning the volume had increased. People saw it and believed. To this day about 30,000 to 35,000 gallons come from this natural mountain spring. Almost immediately, a woman with a disabled arm and a blind man were healed, both of whom had washed in the water.

When the existence of the miraculous spring was first reported, the water was tested to see if contained any healing properties. Local officials had hoped that they would discover that the Lourdes spring was a mineral-rich hot spring, to compete with the hot springs of other French towns. The mayor of Lourdes was disappointed when testing showed that there was nothing special about the measurable levels of minerals found in the waters.

In the early days following the apparitions reported by Bernadette, many inhabitants of Lourdes and other visitors who had washed in the waters claimed miraculous healings. In thanksgiving for these favors, people would post their miracles on the walls of the church until the mere preponderance of the claims required that a formal process be established to review such alleged happenings.

In 1859, Professor Henri Vergez of the Faculty of Medicine at Montpellier was appointed to examine the cures. Seven cures were recorded before 1862, lending credibility to the argument for the recognition of the apparitions by Monsignor Bertrand Laurence, Bishop of Tarbes, who approved the visions as authentic on Jan. 18, 1862.

In 1905, Pope St. Pius X decreed that claims of miraculous cures at Lourdes should “submit to a proper process” and be rigorously investigated. At his instigation, the Lourdes Medical Bureau was formed and headed by the Bishop of Tarbes. Baron Dr. Georges Fernand Dunton of Saint-Maclou was named the first director. At the request of Father Renee Sempé, the first rector of the sanctuary, Dunton moved to Lourdes to ensure that pilgrims who believed they had been cured would be able to file an official report before leaving, so each case could undergo a rigorous and collegial medical verification.

The criteria for validating miraculous cures were decided to match those used in the Vatican for evaluating the potential intercessory miracles in the canonization of saints. These rules had been established by the Italian cardinal Prospero Lambertini (1675–1758), the future Benedict XIV, who provided guidance in the five-volume work On the Beatification of Servants of God and the Canonization of Blesseds (Latin: De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et de Beatorum Canonizatione). In this treatise, he insisted that reason must be used to determine whether the miracles being claimed are truly beyond ordinary human experience and without natural cause. The standards he established for the judgment of healing miracles became known as the “Lambertini Criteria” and are still in use today in the medical examinations at Lourdes and the Vatican.

  • When an alleged miracle is reported, it must pass certain criteria in order to found to be without natural explanation. The criteria are:
  • The illness must be serious and not liable to go away by human means.
  • The cure must be instantaneous (that is, the illness cannot progressively get better over the course of years).
  • The cure must be complete (in cases of blindness, for example, both eyes must regain sight).
  • The cure must be lasting (more than 10 years for most diseases).
  • There can be no other disease or crisis that could have precipitated the cure.
  • There can be no medical treatment that relates to the cure.

Cases where treatment has failed or has not yet been administered are the cases most likely to be considered by the International Lourdes Medical Commission. Different diseases and conditions require different amounts of time to establish that a cure is permanent and medical knowledge has grown since the inception of the Lourdes Medical Bureau but an examination of the data shows that since the beginning the average amount of time between the date of the cure and the official recognition as miraculous is 11 years.

Patients must report their cures to Office of Medical Observation and then follow up with their own physicians back home to obtain the documentation of their previous condition and have it submitted to the doctors in Lourdes. Additionally, patients must fund their own return trips to Lourdes for follow-up testing over the course of years so that their conditions can be monitored. Each year, as many as 6 million pilgrims visit the shrine in Lourdes, including 80,000 malades (the French word used at Lourdes for ill or sick persons).

When a case is submitted to the Medical Bureau, sometimes by interested doctors on pilgrimage, many doctors throughout the lifetime of the case may pore over the records, and examinations of the patient will continue for three years or more. If the cure stands up to this scrutiny, the case is passed on to a larger group — known as The International Lourdes Medical Committee (Comité Médical International de Lourdes, or CMIL for short — which consists of 20 medical experts who meet annually to decide such matters. Specialists in the condition will follow up on the patient, pursuing further tests and reevaluating the results. They then present the case to their peers for a vote.

On those rare occasions where the panel says that a cure is medically inexplicable, the bishop of the Diocese of Tarbes then has the opportunity to make the public announcement that a new miracle at Lourdes has been identified. Over the years, of the thousands of reports of cures that have been received and considered by the Office of Medical Observations, 70 of those have been determined to be without natural explanation, according to current medical standards, and moved on to be formally declared miracles by the local bishop.

The most recently recognized miraculous cure at Lourdes is the 2008 case a French nun, Sister Bernadette Moriau, who became the oldest person ever verifiably cured at Lourdes when she was healed at the age of 79. She had been suffering for more than four decades from back problems and nerve pain that also affected her mobility. She had the rare cauda equina syndrome, a severe type of spinal stenosis where all of the nerves in the lower back suddenly become severely compressed. In many cases, treatment, including surgery, cannot relieve all the symptoms as it can cause permanent nerve damage. Approximately 1 in 500,000 people suffer from the condition.

She had entered the Congregation of the Franciscan Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Nantes, France, as a young woman, but had lived most of her religious life offering her sufferings to the Lord. Her condition set in shortly after finishing her nursing degree and by 1965 it had left her disabled, unable to do the nursing work she loved. Instead, she accompanied the severely sick. Over the following decades, her nerves and physical state deteriorated further, and her mobility declined to the point where she needed a wheelchair to go longer distances. The pain became so constant and intense that she also needed daily doses of morphine to cope with it. Her prognosis was paralysis.

In 2008, she had the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, led by the local bishop. She went not to seek a miracle, but to answer a call from Christ and his mother to meet them in Lourdes for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. The group took the train from Nantes to Lourdes, and what struck Sister Bernadette even on the train was the universal fraternity at the shrine. There was no distinction, between the sick and the well, or the sick and their caregivers.

At the shrine, Sister Bernadette first received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of the Sick, praying for the strength to bear her sufferings. She asked not for physical healing but for her own conversion. The height of the pilgrimage for her though, was the Eucharistic procession with the bishop, during which he paused in front the sick to offer them a special blessing with the Blessed Sacrament. As he lifted the monstrance over them, she felt Jesus was speaking to her heart, telling her that he was there in the sick surrounding her and asking her to offer him all their suffering. She sensed more than ever the living presence of Christ and prayed for the healing of those around her.

While a spiritual blessing, the pilgrimage was physically exhausting, and she had more pain than usual when she returned to her convent in northern France. Still, the spiritual gifts of the pilgrimage remained present to her as she rested from the trip. After three days, she felt recovered enough to go to the chapel for the daily period of Eucharistic adoration. She went with Sister Marie-Albertine, and it was 5:45 p.m., the same time as the Eucharistic procession and blessing in Lourdes. As she prayed, a feeling of healing, warmth and relaxation came over her.

After a time of prayer, Sister Bernadette felt moved to return to her room. Sister Marie-Albertine remained praying in the chapel. Alone in her room, Sister Bernadette heard Christ telling her, again in her heart, to take off all her medical devices, the braces and crutches that supported her weak frame. She obeyed and pushed away the crutches, too. Then she stood up, cured. Free of pain, free of all her apparatuses, she went to tell Sister Marie-Albertine what had happened. Together they cried and thanked God for his intervention.

Not only was she able to discard her morphine and leg braces but just a few days later went on a 5-kilometer walk in celebration of her cure. She then returned to Lourdes and reported her healing to Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, the residing physician and president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations.

Sister Bernadette was examined in Lourdes in 2009, 2013 and 2016, which prompted the medical commission to determine that her healing was sudden, instantaneous, complete and lasting. They declared at their 2016 annual meeting that it was “an unexplained healing, within our current limits of scientific knowledge.” The bishop of Tarbes et Lourdes and copresidents of the International Lourdes Medical Commission sent a letter to the bishop of Beauvais Benoît-Gonnin who, after meeting with the diocesan commission, announced the miracle in a letter dated Feb. 11, 2018, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Bishop Benoît-Gonnin declared the “prodigious-miraculous” character of Sister Bernadette’s healing, adding, “This healing reaffirms for us the loving and active presence of Our Lady in the lives of the faithful who, like her, want to be open to the Word of God and to put it into practice.”

Later, Sister Bernadette was asked to write a book about her life and her healing, and all that made her reflect on God’s work in her life both during her years of suffering and in her sudden cure.

“I wrote that my life is a miracle because on rereading my history,” she said in the interview. “I discovered all these sings of God in my life. In fact, I’m still there; it’s truly a miracle that ended with that of Lourdes, of course.”