Lourdes does not go chasing miracles

26 Mar 2008

By The Record

Simon Hart meets the doctor who guards the shrine’s reputation for authentic cures.

Come, sick, to the doctor of life: Pilgrims at Lourdes, France, are assisted by caretakers in 2004. The sick come to Lourdes from all over the world seeking a cure from their ailments. Pope John Paul II reached out to the sick and suffering during his visit that year to Lourdes, telling them, “With you I share a time of life marked by physical suffering, yet not for that reason any less fruitful in God’s wondrous plan.” Photo: CNS/Reuters

It is a good thing Patrick Theillier is a doctor and not a salesman. Lourdes may enjoy worldwide renown as a place of miracles but its most prominent medic is rather reticent about the principal claim to fame of the Catholic Church’s most popular shrine. “Lourdes does not go chasing miracles,” he says, betraying the scepticism that must serve him well in his work investigating the claims of pilgrims who declare themselves cured.
Chief of the Lourdes medical bureau, Dr Theillier is the man charged with recording and authenticating healings. Hence his office in the Accueil Jean-Paul II – one of the domain’s oldest buildings and formerly the Accueil Notre Dame hospital – is the first port of call for anyone wishing to report a cure. “If it is possible they come and meet me in person or they write or call or e-mail. I want to see them in person – that is important. If they write, I ask them to come and see me.”
The 64-year-old, who is set to retire next year, opened 38 new dossiers in 2007 and 50 in the year before, through these recent additions to the register would be advised not to hold their breath. Only a handful of cases each year earn serious consideration. During the shrine’s 150-year history, over 7200 declarations have produced just 67 confirmed miracles. “There is a caution about declaring miracles,” says Dr Theillier, reinforcing the point.
For all the focus on Lourdes’ famed spring, not every cure follows contact with the water. “There are cures that have happened without the person drinking any water or going into the baths. In fact, there have been people cured far away from Lourdes. There was a grandfather who came from the west coast of Canada to pray for his granddaughter, who was deaf. She regained her hearing the moment he was here praying for her.” The Canadian granddaughter may indeed have been cured but, as Dr Theillier explains, proving it was down to the intercession of Our Lady “becomes more complicated when it takes place 6000 kilometres way from here. If they came here it might be possible.”
Citing another reason why an investigation might stall, he recounts the case of a woman suffering from cervicalgia – a painful condition requiring a neck brace that had been caused by a car accident – who was “cured on the spot” during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2004. “She regained her mobility and suffered no more pain. We are studying the case but it will probably never be recognised as a miracle as it was not a serious illness.”
This is one of the seven strict criteria to satisfy. Besides being serious, the illness had to be one that can be diagnosed. It cannot be a psychiatric illness.
There can be no explanation of a cure by medical treatment. Instead it must be sudden, instantaneous and unexpected. It must be complete and, finally, it must be permanent.
The best-known case during Dr Theillier’s decade-long tenure is that of Jean-Pierre Bely, a French-man who was cured on October 9, 1987.
“He was healed 11 years before I arrived. When I took over his case, I met him and saw he had suffered from multiple sclerosis for 15 years and had been declared 100 per cent incapacitated.”
Bely arrived at Lourdes in a wheelchair and on his third day there received the Sacrament of the Sick. “I was invaded by a powerful feeling of liberation and peace that I had never experienced before,” He would later recount in Dr Theillier’s own book, Talking about Miracles. Within days his recovery was complete. 
While Bely remained an invalid in the eyes of France’s social security, Dr Theillier’s investigations concluded that he had been cured completely – and without explanation. “He gave his testimony over 12 years in a way that was very thorough, very true,” said Dr Theillier, who presented Bely’s dossier to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, a 25-strong body comprising heads of hospital clinics from across Europe. “They had already studied the case of five years earlier but thought it was a bit early. After considering it again they accepted that the healing was entirely inexplicable.”
Procedure demands that the final decision be taken by the Church and so the dossier was passed on to the Bishop of Angouleme, Bely’s home diocese, who reviewed the details before declaring that a miracle had occurred. It was Lourdes 66th and, chronologically speaking, most recent miracle.
Number  67 actually took place in 1952 and was confirmed as an extraordinary cure by the International Medical Committee in 1964.
However, the dossier of Anna Santaniello lay gathering dust in the Archbishop of Salerno’s offices until 2004 when Dr Theillier queried its status. The next year the Italian pilgrim – by now aged 93 – became the latest addition to the list of miracles.
Dr Theillier had long held an interest in alternative medicine – he has diplomas in homeopathy and acupuncture – before settling into his present post in 1998.
“I was a GP but always had an interest in the spiritual dimension of the person.” He was working in nearby Pau when Bishop Jacues Perrier of Tarbes and Lourdes advertised for a new medical bureau chief. “There were 12 candidates and I was chosen.”
Dr Theillier, the 14th incumbent in the bureau’s 125-year history, believes it would be “almost impossible” to perform his duties without his Catholic faith.
Moreover, he admits to having “become increasingly convinced that there is no barrier between the natural and the supernatural” through his work. Yet only when a cure cannot be explained by science does he consider “whether it might be supernatural perhaps, rather than natural”. “Doctors who don’t believe in the miracles say it’s a question of spontaneous remission, that there are exceptions and medicine cannot know everything,” adds Dr Theillier. “You have to join medical reading and a Catholic spiritual reading to explain a cure as a miracle.” What of the argument that cures can be in the mind, or even the product of a placebo effect? “We pay a lot of attention to make cure it is not a psychological or placebo effect. We do psychological examinations to make sure there are no errors. [The healing] is always instantaneous, sudden and surprising. They always ask: ‘Why me?’ That is the question that keeps coming back with everyone who had been cured.”
Dr Theillier’s tasks extend beyond the question of cures and include welcoming the doctors and medical staff of each pilgrimage and overseeing hygiene at the baths. Until quite recently this was primitive. “You filled the baths in the morning, emptied them at midday, filled them again at two and them emptied them in the evening. You couldn’t take that risk nowadays.”
Following the introduction of a natural purification system in 1992 the water now passes through filters before it runs into the baths although another, more basic factor also plays its part. “The cold stops microbes from developing. It is only 123 degrees. (F)”
Although miracles dominate the regular talks he gives to visitors, Dr Theillier himself prefers to dwell on Lourdes’ countless little cures. “If Lourdes is a place of cures and miracles, it is not just for a few, it is for all of us here. They are not necessarily physical cures, but spiritual ones: the healings within us that occur all the times in Lourdes. In today’s world the miraculous always seems to be spectacular but that is not the case.
“The miracle is a sign that comes from God and that is the purpose of the miracle,” he adds. Somebody once said to me they’d believe in the miracles of Lourdes if they saw someone without arms walk out of here with arms. But if that happened it would not be a sign, you would no longer have the freedom to choose whether to believe or not.”
– The Catholic Herald