Diagnosing a miracle -- a long process

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  April 9, 2002 at 4:33 PM
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PARIS, April 9 (UPI) -- The pilgrimage season in Lourdes, at the foothills of the French Pyrenees, is in full swing again since Easter, keeping a bearded man nicknamed "Docteur Miracle" on the lookout for a new sign from God.

Of course, Patrick Theillier, head of the Medical Bureau of Our Lady of Lourdes, would never describe his job that way. "All we can do is give a negative assessment -- that there is no scientific explanation for the sudden cure of a grave illness," he told United Press International.

However, reaching this conclusion involves a lengthy investigation at different levels that can take decades. "And even then there is no guarantee that a cure will be termed a miracle. It's always up to the pilgrim's bishop to make that decision," said Theillier, a specialist in gastroenterology.

Consider this: Some 6 million pilgrims attend this marvelous gathering of the world's Catholic faithful. In the 154 years since the Virgin Mary was reported to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a peasant girl, only 66 of some 7,000 cases of healing were recognized as "signs from God."

"There probably should have been more," Theillier allowed. "But many previously ill pilgrims don't even report the disappearance of their sickness. And if you are a Protestant, you won't have a Catholic bishop to concede that a miracle has happened to you."

To make his point, Theillier gave UPI an e-mail from Sandra Charles, an Australian Protestant woman, who could not have children.

"My doctor in Australia had advised me to have IVF (in-vitro fertilization) and ... I declined ... So my husband and I decided it was God's way and accepted the fact that I would not bear him children."

But Sandra Charles had seen the 1943 Hollywood movie, "The Song of Bernadette," which was based on a moving book on Lourdes by the German Jewish writer Franz Werfel.

So when she and her husband visited France, they went to Lourdes. She drank from the spring water that according to Bernadette Soubirous, the Virgin Mary was reported to have commanded her and future pilgrims to drink.

"When we arrived home we I discovered I was pregnant," wrote Sandra Charles. "My family joked it must have been the wine. My doctors said it was medically impossible."

But the fact is Sandra Charles gave birth to a baby girl and later to a boy. Was it a miracle? Who is to say in the absence of a diocesan bishop?

Nevertheless, she believes, "I was blessed by Our Lady while I was there in Lourdes," and Patrick Theillier, the sanctuary doctor, rejoiced with her, though he will never be able to certify the absence of a scientific explanation. He was not consulted.

He will not get involved easily, he insisted. Before he does, the patient must meet a host of conditions. "He or she must be gravely ill, suffering from a known disease that was diagnosed by medical professionals," Theillier pointed out.

"The illness must be neither not psychological nor even psychosomatic, but strictly physiological and unresponsive to treatment. The cure is to have been instant and complete. We will not consider cases of remission or of a repression of the disease."

Who is "we?" Well, to begin with, Theillier and any medical doctor present at Lourdes at any given time. "Together, these doctors come from all corners of the world make up the Medical Bureau. Many are Protestants, Jews, Muslims or even agnostics, who accompany pilgrims for strictly humanitarian reasons."

These physicians examine case histories, pathologies, biopsies, x-rays, MRIs and all other forms of scientific evidence in the presence of the rector of the Lourdes sanctuary and the pilgrim's pastor.

Once they have confirmed a cure, the pilgrim must meet with the Medical Bureau repeatedly over a period of three years. "Then the case will be referred to the Lourdes International Medical Committee, which has 20 permanent members and includes a further 10,000 physicians from 75 countries -- again, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, even atheist," Theillier said.

The International Committee takes its time. Ten to 15 years can go by before it decides that someone's cure defies medical explanation.

"Only then will we refer the case to the patient's bishop. If he wishes to act upon it, he will assemble a Diocesan Canonical Commission made up of canons, priests, theologians, and physicians. If they agree, the bishop will be able to proclaim the healing a 'sign from God.'"

This happened in 2001, when Bishop Jean-Pierre Dagens of Angoulême in southwestern France, who enjoys the reputation of being one of his church's most powerful minds, recognized a local nurse's sudden and medically inexplicable restoration to health as authentic.

Nurse Jean-Pierre Bély, now 65, was in the final stages of multiple sclerosis. In 1987, he went to Lourdes, where he received the Sacrament of the Sick during Mass. "All of a sudden," his diocese later reported, "he was overcome by a powerful sense of interior liberation and peace."

The next day, Bély was lying in the sanctuary's sick room. Suddenly, he experienced a sense of cold. It grew stronger and stronger and felt quite painful, he told his clerical and medical examiners.

But then he began to feel intensely warm. He sat at the edge of his bed and could move his arms. The next night, he awoke from a deep sleep and discovered he could walk for the first time since 1984.

Raj Persaud, senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, just happened to be in Lourdes when this recognition of Bély's cure was announced.

The British Broadcasting Corporation had sent Persaud to Lourdes "to make an investigation of whether miracles really happen," he later told the BBC's listeners.

He went on, "I found much to my surprise ... that even hard-headed scientists can still be convinced in the 21st century that miracles, which violate the known laws of nature, still happen."

In Bély's case, Persaud discovered a strange analogy between the reactions of those who are restored to health and those who make it through wars and holocausts -- they later suffer from survivor guilt.

Persaud said of Bély, "This man, although largely serene, seemed a little troubled now by the ultimate question, which was, given that many go to Lourdes and don't receive the blessing of a cure, why was he singled out for a miracle?

"It seems that even those who believe in miracle cures or have directly experienced them there remains this last disquieting question -- why me?"

To hear Patrick Theillier, this disquieting question will be asked over and over again in decades to come: Last year, 35 Lourdes pilgrims declared they were miraculously healed.

"Of those, we accepted 10 cases for further examinations," Theillier revealed, "and a decade or more from now, three could go down as signs from God."

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