In an unpretentious building close to the grotto thousands of cures have been exhaustively investigated according to the highest standards of modern medicine.
At first the scientific community laughed at Lourdes. But in 1906, when a fierce media uproar was orchestrated against Lourdes in an attempt to have the shrine closed on charges of bad hygiene, Dr Vincent, a Lyons doctor, gathered the signatures of 3,000 colleagues attesting to the benefit of Lourdes for sick people that “we doctors have been powerless to save”. Things had changed so much by 1930 that in that year Dr Henri Monier was awarded his doctorate by the University of Paris for his thesis dealing with cures at Lourdes.
The main reason for this turnaround in attitude was the Lourdes Medical Bureau, set up in 1883 to rigorously document and test cures. Today the Bureau is housed in its own building near the grotto and has its own state-of-the-art laboratories, library, archives and conference facilities. It works to the highest professional standards and liaises with other world-class medical research centres.
Along with its own permanent staff, the Bureau calls on the expertise of hundreds of doctors and medical researchers, including many non-Catholics, and even doctors with no religious beliefs, who all participate in discussions and examinations. The Bureau is independent of the Catholic Church, so that it cannot be accused of being controlled.
The Bureau holds records of thousands of cures but only a tiny portion of these make it through all the hurdles into the category of unexplainable cures. Not because the rest are fraudulent, but because they cannot be guaranteed as unexplainable.
The Medical Bureau does not declare miracles. Its function is to decide if the cure can be explained by natural means. After that the Bureau passes the case to the Church, which now begins its own equally exhaustive inquiry before any decision is made.
The extreme rigour of the whole process means that only 64 cures have been declared miraculous to date, while another four or five have cleared the medical hurdles and await pronouncement by the Church.
Lourdes water has no inherent curative qualities. It is common spring water with the same chemical make up of any similar Pyrenean mountain spring. It flows at 30,000 gallons per day from the grotto floor into reservoirs from whence it is piped to a line of taps and to the famous baths. Rumours that the flow rate is diminishing are entirely false.
Every imaginable illness has been cured at Lourdes, even highly contagious ones, and never has there been a case of cross-infection. The Pasteur Institute took a water sample from the baths at the end of a busy day. Harmful bacteria were found in it. The water sample was cultured to cause those microbes to multiply into highly lethal numbers and this brew was served to guineas pigs to drink. None took ill. To the astonishment of the scientists, the bacteria in the Lourdes water was inert and harmless, as though they were asleep. Whereas the Institute did the same with water from the River Seine and the guineas pigs died.
There is no standard way that cures happen. Some are truly spectacular; others more subtle. Some are instantaneous; others happen over time. Some patients feel a delightful sense of warmth and well being; while others feel a brief, sharp pain. Some cures are so complete it appears the patient was never sick; others leave scars or slight effects as reminders of the disease. Cures may happen on a first pilgrimage or a later one; in the grotto or even far away from Lourdes. Some happen while using Lourdes water; others happen while the patient is simply praying.
That cures are due to faith is clear. But in some cases not even that is necessary. Fr Fiamma came down from Paris with tormenting ulcerous varicose veins. He came only because his bishop insisted and he scoffed at the whole idea of being cured. He grudgingly let himself be cajoled into the baths. As he dipped his legs into the water he gasped as a pain, “like someone thrusting a red-hot iron under my skin” surged through his legs. He was instantly, totally and permanently cured.