Sezione Medicina

da Leadership Medica n. 10 del 2002

Are miracles still occurring in Lourdes?

This is the question that many people ask themselves, even though with varying attitudes, motivations and expectations. But this is a question which we, as physicians, often ask ourselves, as we daily approach the sick, within a healthcare context which is increasingly sophisticated and, at the same time, withered and emptied of its many human (and Christian!) values, which had permeated it and supported it for so many centuries.
The progress made by science, over the last decades, has reached unconceivable goals, which continue to amaze us and project us towards even higher targets. Does it still make sense today, at the beginning of the third millennium, to talk about miraculous recoveries witnessed at a religious Shrine, when in our Hospitals and in our Research Institutes, our Physician, Surgeon and Researcher colleagues perform every day prodigies, which may almost be regarded as miracles? In addition, it appears that the Lourdes recoveries have become less frequent and more difficult to prove; this is also caused by growing (though understandable) scepticism amongst scientists, as well as by the great caution displayed by the Church.
However, if we pay attention to the recent literary, cultural and religious trends, and above all to the media, we cannot but detect a growing wave of TV/radio programmes, books and magazines addressing the subject of miracles! And this indeed happens because physical recovery is a primary objective for the whole of humanity and therefore always awakens huge interest amongst public opinion: it creates audience! Health continues to be and will always be the most precious gift for human beings, and the recovery of health in many cases still represents a mystery.

What is a miracle?
Based on the latest data from the Lourdes Bureau Médical, 66 cases have officially been acknowledged as miraculous, from 1858 to nowadays; from the first case occurring a few days after the first apparition at Massabielle, to the last case, relating to Mr. Jean-Pierre Bély, acknowledged in 1999, versus an overall number of 7000 recoveries claimed. Indeed, although it is true that no miracle occurs without prodigy, not each prodigy necessarily has a meaning within the faith context; in this case, we simply refer to mirabilia or to events which go beyond the natural course of events. And in any case, before hailing something as a miracle, it is essential to await the opinion of the Church; only the ecclesiastical authorities can proclaim a miracle or miracula and, before expressing its favourable opinion, ir has to be absolutely sure that only God can have been the cause of that sign. For the Lourdes physicians, these are physical recoveries, affecting the body and unexplainable, owing to the medical and scientific knowledge possessed at the time. This has made it possible to restrict, ever since the beginning, many pedantic discussions.

Ever since the period of the apparitions, medicine has played a crucial role. First of all, as far as Bernadette was concerned, when Dr. Dozous, the Lourdes physician, detected she was physically healthy and mentally sane, and subsequently with respect to the first people who had benefited from the blessing of a recovery.
But the number of healed people continued to grow tremendously, and it was therefore necessary to consider, in each on of these event, the subjective and objective elements.
Dr.Dozous had recorded more than a hundred cases in the year 1858 only, and Canon Bertrin over 4000 statements of recovery between 1858 and 1914. Ever since 1859, Prof.Vergez, an associate of the Montpellier Faculty of Medicine, had been put in charge of a scrupulous scientific control of recoveries. Dr. De Saint-Maclou succeeded him in 1883, year in which he established the Bureau Médical, in its official and permanent organisation. Dr. Boissarie, another major personality in Lourdes, succeed the latter, upon his death in 1891, and maintained the position until the First World War.

Under Dr. Boissarie’s chairmanship, and thanks to his taking a personal interest with the highest official Church Institutions, Pope Pius X asked for the most sensational recoveries “to be subject to a regular ecclesiastical trial”, in order for them to be eventually acknowledged as miracles. At that time The Church already had available a “criteria scheme” of a medical/religious nature for acknowledging the miraculous nature of extraordinary events, such as unexplainable recoveries; such criteria had been established in 1734 by an authoritative member of clergy, which was to become Pope Benedict XIV: the Cardinal Prospero Lambertini. Such criteria, which were designed at certifying the holiness of a servant of the Church, in connection with a future beatification or canonisation trial, and hence in a juridical context, where also adopted for the Lourdes recovery cases.
After which, the physicians De Saint-Maclou, who besides was also a Doctor in Theology, and Gustave Boissarie, who were the first two people in charge of the Medical Service in Lourdes, followed all the canonical recommendations provided by Benedict XIV, in order to avoid mistakes.
What are the medical and religious criteria employed with respect to miraculous recoveries? At this point, I feel it is worthwhile analysing in greater detail, the crucial role played by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, future Pope Benedict XIV (1740), in formulating the medical and religious criteria enforceable with respect to the recoveries claimed during the canonical trials or cases (1734): besides, such criteria have become even more rigid and strict over the years.

From: De Servorum Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione (liber IV, Cap. VIII, no. 2), with commentaries up to the end of the chapter - Author: Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, future Pope Benedict XIV, 1734.

1.“ Primum est, ut morbus sit gravis, et vel impossibilis, vel curatu difficilis ” – Firstly, the disease should be serious, incurable or difficult to treat.
2.“ Secundum, ut morbus, qui depellitur, non sit in ultima parte status, ita ut non multo post declinare debeat ” – Secondly, the eradicated disease should not be in its final stage or at a stage whereby it may involve spontaneous recovery.
3.“ Tertium, ut nulla fuerint adhibita medicamenta, vel, si fuerint adhibita, certum sit, ea non profuisse ” – Thirdly, no drug should have been administered or, in the event that it has been administered, the absence of any effects should have been ascertained.
4.“ Quartum, ut sanatio sit subita, et momentanea ” – Fourthly, the recovery has to take place suddenly and instantly.
5.“ Quintum, ut sanatio sit perfecta, non manca, aut concisa ” – Fifthly, the recovery has to be perfect, and not defective or partial. 6.“ Sextum, ut nulla notatu digna evacuatio, seu crisis praecedat temporibus debitis, et cum causa; si enim ita accidat, tunc vero prodigiosa sanatio dicenda non erit, sed vel ex toto, vel ex parte naturalis ” Sixthly, it is necessary that any noteworthy excretion or crisis has taken place at the proper time, as a reasonable result of an ascertained cause, prior to the recovery; under these circumstances the recovery cannot be deemed prodigious, but totally or partially natural.
7.“ Ultimum, ut sublatus morbus non redeat ” – Lastly, it is necessary for the eradicated disease not to reappear. First of all it is crucial that the disease in question is a severe one, involving a serious prognosis, incurable or involving an uncertain treatment; these were the author’s words.

Therefore, our colleagues in those times, and even more their successors, went even further than Cardinal Lambertini, and demanded that the diseases were perfectly identified, with objective symptoms and adequate instrumental tests! This excluded all mental illnesses; quite obviously, there was a need to prove the existence of the disease.
Today, the field of complementary tests required has significantly broadened, and this makes it increasingly difficult to reach a diagnosis, owing to the existence of “false positives” or of “false negatives”, which we find every so often in laboratory examinations and ultrasound or X-ray scans. It goes without saying that the disease is not supposed to have been treated, or else that it’s drug-resistance to any therapy that is viewed as effective can be proved.
This criterion, which could easily be complied with during the 18th century, when pharmacopoeia was very limited, is today much more difficult to be shown. Indeed, we have available molecules and procedures which are much more sophisticated and effective nowadays! How can we rule out the possibility that they may have played a role? But the following criterion, the one which has always been the most spectacular, is that of an instantaneous recovery. Besides, we are often satisfied with talking about an exceptional rapidity, rather than instantaneity, because this always requires a certain time, which varies according to the initial lesions.
The crucial factor lies in this amazing functional recovery, accompanied by an accelerated tissue cicatrisation. Recovery is therefore “perfect”, but always leaves behind a scar, the indelible sign of indisputable lesions. Lastly, the recovery must be final. Hence a prolonged monitoring period, an irritating but in any case joint control, in order to be always quite certain, as part of a transparent debate involving all medical practitioners, whether believers or non-believers, that no relapse takes place.
Unless all such conditions materialise, we cannot refer to a Lourdes recovery; besides, if these same criteria were requested by the Catholic Church of Rome, in order to beatify God’s Servants and canonise its Blessed, all the more reason for these to be enforced for the Immaculate Conception!
In 1948 Mgr.Théas, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, decided to lay down supplementary rules and indications, which were even clearer and more logic in terms of recovery acknowledgement, for the medical practitioners of the Acknowledgement Office, taking into account three basic criteria:

  1. Was there really a disease?
  2. Is there a real recovery?
  3. Is there a natural explanation for this recovery?

At the same time, while medicine became scientific, under the chairmanship of Prof. Leuret, the National Medical Committee was established in 1947, made up by university specialists, in order for a more rigorous and independent control to better guarantee the authenticity of the conclusions.
This committee became International (LIMC) in 1954, thus acquiring even greater authority and a universal dimensions. At present, the Lourdes International Medical Committee (LIMC) is based in Paris, and is chaired by Mgr. Jacques Perrier, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, and by Mgr. Jean-Luis Armand-Laroche from Paris; it is made up by 25 members, including luminaries of international renown, university professors and particularly experienced and qualified medical practitioners, from different countries worldwide.

Italy is represented by three members; in addition to the undersigned, LIMC members include Prof. Fausto Santeusanio, Director of the Chair of Endocrinology at Perugia University, and Prof.Graziano Pretto, Director of the Otolaryngology Department of the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza Hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. Each complete medical file, accurately drawn up by the medical practitioner in charge of the competent Medical Service, after having been checked and accepted by the Bureau Médical, currently chaired by Dott. Patrick Theiller, is submitted to the LIMC, which meets in Paris or Lourdes once a year.
Just like a court of appeal, the LIMC confirma or invalidates the position taken by the Bureau Médical in the “first instance”, after having carefully examined and evaluated the various files and, should this be required, it can request the advice or opinion of highly qualified external experts.
The LIMC is currently analysing two very interesting cases, which may lead to major developments. In order to take into account the acknowledgement of a recovery, the premises of the following two fundamental aspects (which however need to be carefully distinguished) need to exist:
1. The abnormal fact: the phenomenon of recovery itself, which is characterised by its being absolutely unexpected and unexplainable, compared to ordinary medical predictions and to scientific literature data, and which will be subject to an in-depth medical analysis;
2. The sign: which leads to the belief of a special intervention by God, by intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes; this intervention has to be acknowledged by the Church, based on the report of the cured person. But at this stage, we also need to point out:
a) The definition of miracle: this is an extraordinary and exceptional event, which cannot be explained through today’s scientific knowledge;
b) The features of a miracle: this is a sudden or exceptionally rapid event, with permanent effects and no relapses, which can be assessed through a scientific and interdisciplinary methodology involving biology, forensic medicine, theology, etc.
c) The context in which the miracle occurs: historic age, documentation and iconography, taking place within catholic religion and not other religious beliefs and/or cultures, etc.;
d) The authority proclaiming the miracle: after the favourable judgement passed by the CMIL (Comité Médical International de Lourdes), this is the ecclesiastic ordinary of the diocese of origin or another authoritative representative of the Church.
After 1977, following the proposal put forward by Mgr. Donze (who has recently died) to reword the rules laid down by Benedict XIV in the light of nowadays’ scientific and technological innovations, a 16 query scheme prepared by the LIMC was laid down; among other things, this introduced the need to rule out any psychopathic component, as well as any other subjective pathologic statea or manifestationa (which are therefore not verifiable), hence only taking into account the recovery acknowledgements relating to serious and provable affections, the only ones that could be deemed as “scientifically inexplicable”. And therefore, in this case it will be possible to close the medical report supporting a “certain and medically unexplainable” recovery, only when:
1) The diagnostics and authenticity of the disease has been preliminarily and perfectly assessed;
2) The prognosis provides for an impending or short-term fatal outcome;
3) The recovery is sudden, without convalesce, and absolutely complete and final;
4) The prescribed treatment cannot be deemed to have resulted in a recovery or in any case could have been propitiatory for the purposes of recovery itself. These criteria are still in use nowadays, in view of their highly logical, accurate and pertinent nature.
They undoubtedly and straightforwardly set out the standard features of an unexpected recovery and have actually made it impossible to put forward any objection to any form of lack of scientific exactitude on the part of the medical practitioners belonging to the Bureau and to the LIMC.
The rigour of the Lourdes medical practitioners, whose scrupulousness throughout the years has been centering on the suddenness of recoveries, on the relative effectiveness of the therapies administered, on the objective evidence of the disease found, or on the shorter or longer length of the monitoring period (depending on the disease), has always been exemplary and appreciated by all the Diocesan Canonical Committees that have been called to express their opinion.
Compliance to such criteria has corroborated the seriousness and objectivity of the former Bureau des Constatations and, today, it continues to guide the Comité Médical International de Lourdes, whose conclusions have always represented an indispensable expert’s piece of evidence generating and motivating any further canonical judgements required to acknowledge the real Miracles amongst the thousands of recoveries ascribed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Do the prodigious Lourdes recoveries have a scientific future? This query, which had been recently put forward by a medical practitioner who has recently been appointed as a member of the International Medical Committee, may sound a bit provocative; still it is a question he is recently asked by friends, colleagues, intellectuals, journalists, and so on. This question may lead to different responses. One of these consists in observing that scientific knowledge is still far from revealing all its secrets to us. Our knowledge in the fields of molecular chemistry, genetics and neurotransmitters, to name but a few, are fully developing and reveal to us every day new mysteries, new and unprecedented prospects, which would have been unthinkable up to few years ago. However, we have not yet succeeded in finding scientifically valid explanations, even for the earliest miraculous recoveries! Furthermore, the Lourdes recoveries represent an exceptional field of research, on the various analysis planes that can apply to such totally uncommon events.
There still are many physical diseases for which we do not know effective therapies: these include certain neurological affections, such as multiple sclerosis, or a whole range of post-traumatic neuromotor consequences, which are so frequent nowadays; there also are affections that can be better treated today, such as certain specific infective diseases or oncological pathologies: in all such cases, we reach a point in which medicine has to “raise its hands in sign of surrender” and admit that it is at this stage powerless ... and it is never easy for a medical practitioner to admit this!
The Lourdes Bureau Médical recorded last year the transit of 3794 healthcare workers, 2162 of whom were medical practitioners (518 are the new ones, which have been admitted for the first time to LIMA - the Lourdes International Medical Association), and among these more than one third are Italian.
And medical practitioners are very important as far as the Lourdes recoveries are concerned, since they are to reconcile the requirements of logic with those of the heart, in that their role and function is not to display an excessive positivistic attitude, as well doing everything in their power to exclude any possible scientific explanation. It is faith itself to demand that science expresses itself on the authenticity and verifiability of such signs, even though the decision as to its meaning, miracle or not, always lies with the Church. Dr. Boissarie loved to reiterate: “The history of Lourdes has been written by the doctors”. And these prophetic words still pervade every doctor today, every patient, every pilgrim in Lourdes; it is thanks to the reliability of medicine, to the loyalty and rigour shown by this discipline, that we can rely on the essential foundation for the credibility of the Shrine itself.
As Father Francois Varillon, a French Jesuit who passed away in the late ‘70s, used to say: “it is not up to religion to establish that water freezes at 0°C, nor that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to 180°, but it is not even up to science to state whether God intervenes in our lives. “. (trasl. by Interpres)

Franco Balzaretti
Vice Presidente Nazionale - Associazione Medici Cattolici Italiani (AMCI)
Membre du Comité Médical International de Lourdes (CMIL)