It is estimated that amongst the three million or so pilgrims that pass through Lourdes each year, there are somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 Irish. Of the many different nationalities that visit the shrine – many of them in the hope of a miracle – approximately one third are from France itself.
The French have a long history of cynical secularism when it comes to the Catholic Church, but those that do believe seem to have something special going on in their relationship with God because their miracle “hit-rate” is extraordinarily high.
Since the very first year of Lourdes in 1862, there have been a total of 68 official cures that cannot be explained medically. These were recorded by the Bureau des Constatations (an official state organisation run by lay doctors to monitor cures attributed to the Shrine of Lourdes) and then validated by the Comité Médical International. Of the 68 bona fide miracles, 55 of them were cases relating to French nationals, representing 82% of the miracles, even though the French represent only 33% of the total number of pilgrims. Pity the poor Italians: they seem to be more devout than their French neighbours and the number of them is almost equal to that of the French, yet they’ve only been rewarded with an official miracle on a measly seven occasions.
This is still a better score than the Belgians (3 miracles), the Germans, Austrians and Swiss (one each), but the disproportion is still fairly striking (for the record, not a single American registers on the scale, but then they do have Doctor House and, despite the huge numbers of Irish people that have visited over the years, not one of our lot have been rewarded with a miracle, officially).
The official recognition of a miraculous recovery is quite a complex process and one which leaves many disappointed pilgrims in its wake, even if it’s perhaps better to have a doubtful miracle than to have had no miracle at all. Over the course of the last century and a half, more than 7,000 cases have been submitted and subsequently filed away under “non-miraculous recovery” by the religious authorities.
Here’s how it works: You’re unwell. You get yourself to this little town nestled at the foothills of the Pyrenees and which has been made famous by a series of apparitions by the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubrious. You sprinkle yourself with some of the local mineral water and, hey presto! You’re cured. You are then invited to visit the residing doctor of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, who will decide whether or not your case is worth the intrusion on his time.
It’s just that it isn’t quite enough to have an unclogged nose or to feel sudden relief from an ankle sprain to claim divine intervention. No – you need something more substantial: a cancer, multiple sclerosis or at least some sort of chronic debilitating illness accompanied by a comprehensive medical report attesting to the nature and state of advance of the disease. It’s also important that this healing is of a substantial length of time: a simple remission being regarded as being of a definitively worldly origin and not of a heavenly one.The latest confirmed miracle was last year, for example, and it was for a cure that happened back in 2002. A certain Serge François, aged 53 and from the diocese of Angers (in the Dept of Maine-et-Loire, near Nantes), was suffering from serious sciatica problems and was receiving morphine treatment. After swallowing some water from the fountain at the grotto, he became instantly better. But ever wary of medical progress, an authentic miracle is confirmed within the context of “the current state of scientific advancement” and the Comité Médical is always careful to take into account the “psychosomatic element in a curing case”.
None of these precautions prevent the sceptics from observing the whole Lourdes affair as a bit of a circus. The anti-sect organisation Centre Contre les Manipulations Mentales, for example, is always amused at how the frequency of miracles has dropped since the miracle criteria dating from 1738 were abandoned in favour of more stringent ones. The phenomenon doesn’t stop certain scientific boffins from making it a crusade to discover rational explanations for the spontaneous cures. Nobel-prize-winning virologist (and discoverer of the HIV virus) Luc Montagnier leads the charge in this regard. But he hasn’t had any success yet…
Oh well, in any case, a trip up the mountains in the high summer never did anyone any harm – that’s for sure. And if you really want to maximise your chances of a cure, my advice is to get yourself a forged French passport.