By Patrick P. Rowan
Lourdes has a great attraction for Irish people. It is over a century since the first Irish national pilgrimage to Lourdes took place when 2,000 intrepid pilgrims made the arduous journey through London and Paris to reach their destination. During the intervening one hundred years, many millions of Irish people have visited the shrine. During my many visits, I have always been struck by the great many Irish accents to be heard there.
Reasons why so many make the pilgrimage
People undertake the pilgrimage for a great variety of reasons. Some go because of illness but many go to pray and to get consolation for the many trials in life. A small number may hope or even expect to be cured of an illness, but it is very rare for a person to be miraculously cured and for the cure to be accepted as such by the Church.
The criteria laid down before a cure is accepted as miraculous are very stringent. The first miraculous cure in Lourdes took place in 1858 at the time that the Blessed Virgin was appearing to Bernadette. A 38-year-old French lady suffering from paralysis of an arm due to an old injury, was cured instantly. In the 150 years since then, only a total of 69 cures have been declared miraculous.
In 1905, Pope Pius X decreed that reputed cures in Lourdes be fully investigated. Because of this, the Lourdes Medical Bureau was set up. This is the official organisation in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes run by doctors where claims by pilgrims that they have been cured through the intercession of Our Lady are investigated.
The Bureau has received over 7,000 such claims and continues to receive about 35 claims annually. Of these, only 3 or 5 are found to be worthy of further investigation. The ‘cure’ must relate to a serious illness with a confirmed diagnosis and it must have occurred instantly and be permanent. Also, the cure must not be due to any treatment that the person was receiving. If the person’s recovery satisfies the members of the Medical Bureau that it is scientifically inexplicable then further investigation is passed on to the International Medical Association of Lourdes. This body consists of 20 senior specialists of various medical disciplines and of different faiths.
Up-to-date medical reports are obtained allowing a comparative study of the person’s health before and after the cure. The person has to return for a check-up every year for many years before a final verdict on the case is given. If the Medical Association is convinced that a ‘medically inexplicable cure’ has taken place, the details are passed to the bishop of the diocese where the person lives. It is the bishop –not the doctors- who decide if the cure is miraculous.
A recent secretary of the International Medical Association summed up the work of the Association when he said that they could only acknowledge that a case is a ‘remarkable instance of healing’ leaving it up to the Church Authorities to decide if a miracle had taken place. This is due to the extraordinary progress in medical science in recent times since there are now means of treating many conditions previously regarded as incurable.
When a bishop receives information that someone in his diocese has had an inexplicable cure in Lourdes he appoints a canonical commission to look into the person’s background and also to see if that person and witnesses have benefited spiritually from the cure. Only if the bishop is satisfied, will he declare the cure miraculous.
As is to be expected, most of those whose cures were declared miraculous were French residents, since France supplies the greatest number of pilgrims to the shrine, but there were also some from Italy and Belgium and one each from Switzerland, Austria and Algeria. Ireland has never had a defined cure, although one person who nearly made the grade was of Irish descent. John Traynor was born in Liverpool and had multiple war wounds and severe epilepsy. He made a full recovery while in the baths in Lourdes in 1923 and was subsequently ‘certified’ by the Medical Bureau, but his Bishop did not accept that his recovery was ‘miraculous.’
Cases of accepted cures
Since 1989 only three miraculous cures have been registered. In 1989, an Italian girl, who had cancer in a bone in her right knee was found to be cured. She first went to Lourdes in 1976 when she was 12-years-old and then was checked every year for the following thirteen years.
In 1999, the miraculous cure of Jean-Pierre Bely, a French man, who had suffered from progressive multiple sclerosis for 15 years was recognised. In 1987, when he first went to Lourdes, he was bedridden and had a 100 per cent disability pension. On a Friday in October, 1987 during the pilgrimage, he regained his normal functions in a sudden, unexpected and unforeseen way. The latest cure was of an Italian lady who developed a tumour of the adrenal gland tissue causing uncontrollable bouts of high blood pressure.
The condition did not resolve despite numerous operations. She made a remarkable recovery in Lourdes and was accepted as ‘cured’ by the Medical Bureau in 2010, and her recovery was recognised by her Bishop as ‘miraculous.’ Many people talk of the ‘miracles’ they felt or saw or heard of while on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. These are the little ‘miracles’ not admissible by the Church but very important to pilgrims. There is a saying in Lourdes that helps put the subject of miracles in the proper perspective. To get back one’s faith is more important than to get back one’s sight.