A Protestant Looks At Lourdes Part 2.

The International Medical Association of Lourdes, organized in 1927, has an enrollment of 5000 doctors, from 30 countries, who assist in the methodical checking of alleged cures.
All this does not mean there is no longer opposition or hostility. There is plenty. “But,” as Dr. A. Marchand wrote in his The Facts of Lourdes, “the time of systematic contempt has passed.”
“What is the most remarkable cure you've witnessed?” I asked one of the doctors at the Bureau, an old-timer who had been coming to Lourdes every year for 20 years.
“It’s hard to select,” he said. “But- well, there was Madame Augustine Augault-a remarkable case. I lived near her, knew the two surgeons who attended her, and also her parish priest. So I know that her cure was genuine.” This woman had been ill for 12 years with a fibroid tumor of the uterus. It had grown to such enormous proportions that the pressure had caused chronic gastric troubles and vomiting. A heart condition made an operation impossible, and the case had reached an apparently hopeless stage.
As a last resort Madame Augault decided to go to Lourdes. Her family physician strongly opposed this, telling her that she would never come back alive. But Madame Augault persisted.
She made the journey on a mattress, at the end of her strength and very close to death. Four injections were necessary to help her heart during the trip. A doctor who visited her on the train told the Medical Bureau later that he “had been startled by the dimensions of her abdomen.”
On the first morning at Lourdes she was taken to the baths on a stretcher. During the brief instant of her immersion she felt excruciating pain, then the pressure in her abdomen seemed to disappear. But she was very tired and continued to suffer terribly until she was carried on her stretcher to the Procession at four that afternoon. Then, at the precise moment when the Blessed Sacrament passed by, her sufferings vanished, and she was conscious of a rebirth of her energies. She stayed on her cot, however, and said nothing about how she felt. The next day she was again taken to the piscine.
The attendants who had bathed her before observed with amazement that her abdomen was entirely flat and apparently normal. Moreover, she was able to walk.
After this bath she was taken to the Medical Bureau and examined by some 30 doctors. The official record states: “On examination, the abdomen was found to be perfectly supple. The skin was ‘pleated’ like that of a woman who has had a child. The belt which the invalid wore on her arrival at Lourdes is now seven inches too large. The coat, on which the buttonholes show marks of stretching from the distension of the abdomen, has become much too big and now overlaps considerably.”
Madame Augault’s cure was permanent.
How are the cures verified? What safeguards are there against fraud? To, begin with, every pilgrimage is accompanied by one or more medical men, and no sick person is accepted without a medical certificate from his home physician stating his disease and present condition. When a supposed cure occurs, the pilgrimage doctor reports at once to the Medical
Bureau. The doctors there then examine the patient and discuss the case. Did the illness really exist? Is there a cure? If so, can it be explained naturally? Neurotic cases are ruled out completely. No case is accepted unless there has been some organic change-the healing of malignant tissue, the restoration of wasted nerves and muscles, the sudden knitting of chronic bone fractures.
If the case appears inconclusive, it is immediately dropped. If it is retained, the patient is kept under observation by a local physician for at least a year, and complete documentation, including X rays, laboratory reports, statements from attending physicians and other witnesses, is collected. Then the patient is brought back to Lourdes for another examination by doctors of the most varied backgrounds.
“The medical work at Lourdes is run entirely by doctors, never forget that,” Dr. Leuret, until his recent death the president of the Medical Bureau, told me. Dr. Leuret was a remarkable person: Legion of Honour, Croix de Guerre, professor of medicine and head of a large clinic in the worst section of Bordeaux.
“During my time here,” Dr. Leuret continued, “Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Protestants of all sects, have been among our colleagues; atheists and unbelievers, too. It’s this study of the cures by men of such different viewpoints that guarantees our good faith.”
After the medical commission at Lourdes decides that a cure is outside the laws of nature, it is sent on to the medical commission at Paris. This commission, composed of 20 distinguished physicians and surgeons, then declares (or decides not to declare), “We find no natural or scientific explanation of this cure.” Only when this body has passed a case does it finally go to a Canonical Commission of the Church for final evaluation as a miracle.
How many have occurred at Lourdes? In nearly a century of the shrine’s existence 51 cases have been pronounced miraculous cures by the Church. This however, represents the most stringent selection. The Church does not deny the possibility of miracles “less complete,” of which there have been many; but it refuses to authenticate them. Among other stipulations a Canonical Commission’s requirements for a miraculous cure are:
1. That the malady was grave and not improving under medication. 2. That the cure was instantaneous, with no period of convalescence. 3. That the cure was perfect, and that there was no relapse.
A large number of actual cures go without official recognition because of insufficient data. Sometimes home physicians have not kept sufficiently precise data. Other doctors refuse point-blank to furnish X rays, diagnoses or laboratory reports. “If it’s Lourdes, we’re not interested,” they say. And scores of people who are cured do not report it simply because they dislike publicity. Indeed, many people who now enjoy the blessings of being well after years of agony care not at all that their cures are not recognized as miracles. They come to Lourdes and give thanks every year just the same.
The Medical Bureau at Lourdes has fairly complete records of 1200 cures which it recognizes as being “inexplicable under natural laws,” but which the Church, for one reason or another, has refused to authenticate as miracles. In addition it has notations and material concerning some 4000 other cases that are very probably complete and genuine cures. This may seem a small number, in view of the many thousands who come. But ten such cures -or even one-would be equally dumbfounding.
When a patient who has been cured returns to Lourdes for examination, one of the visiting doctors is often asked to officiate. An American, Dr. Smiley Blanton, directed the examination of one of the most famous cures-Charles McDonald. Thirty- two doctors at the Bureau studied this remarkable case, and Dr. Blanton later read an account of it before a joint session of the American Psychoanalytic and Psychiatric Associations.
Charles McDonald was brought to Lourdes from Dublin on September 6, 1936, with the Catholic Young Men’s Pilgrimage of Ireland. He was then 31 and had been ill since he was 20. His Dublin physician certified that he had tuberculosis of the spine, nephritis, and tuberculous arthritis of the left shoulder. For 15 months he had been completely bedfast, and had five large draining abscesses. He endured maddening pain, was unable to sit up for more than four minutes at a time, and was pronounced beyond medical aid.
No change in McDonald’s condition occurred during his first day at Lourdes. The next day he was bathed again and later carried to a service at the Grotto. It was then that he began to feel the first glow of health.
“It should be . . . remembered,” says Dr. Blanton, “that for 15 months the patient had been unable to move his hips or shoulders without severe pain. Now, lying on a stretcher at the Grotto, he experimented by moving his arm slightly. There was no pain. He loosened the brace strap on his shoulder and raised his shoulders from the pillow-still without pain.”
The next morning, when the doctors and nurses who had forbidden him to get up were out of the room, he got out of bed and dressed himself without help. That day he was taken to the Grotto in an invalid chair. Afterwards, though he had made not the slightest move without agonizing pain for more than a year, he walked up the steps into the Rosary Church and was able to make a genuflection and kneel at one of the benches.
When he returned to Dublin, McDonald had the supreme pleasure of dispensing with the ambulance which had been so vitally necessary one short week before. The pilgrimage physician, Dr. Christopher Hannigan, wrote on August 29, 1937: “I have seen Mr. McDonald twice since his return from Lourdes. I can declare definitely that there are no traces of his former illness. I am glad to testify to this cure, as when I first saw him I regarded his case as hopeless.”
On September 16, 1937, McDonald returned to Lourdes. Dr. Blanton and 32 other doctors then examined him, found him in excellent health (as he is to this day), and agreed that “No medical explanation, in the present state of science, can be given for his cure.”
In his report to his American confreres Dr. Blanton concludes: “We must lay aside as untenable the accusation that cases such as Charles McDonald’s are in any way ‘fixed’ or the histories ‘doctored.’ There does appear to be at this shrine a sudden quickening of the healing processes. The percentages of such cures are certainly too great to be laid to coincidence, nor do the details of the cures conform to the laws of recovery as we know them.
Even coincidental cures in our hospitals do not in the space of two or three days get up and walk without pain after 15 months in bed with continual pain. I believe that something does occur which is ‘on the margin of the laws of nature.’”
Many observers think the extraordinary emotional climate of Lourdes responsible for many of the cures achieved there. For the whole atmosphere of the shrine is one which intensifies faith.
One amazing aspect of Lourdes is the fact that the city has never had an epidemic. Two million travellers and 30,000 sick pass through there every year. Hundreds are given baths each day, and many persons suffering from all manner of diseases are immersed in the same water. Yet apparently no infection ever results.
The Lourdes water is a strange phenomenon. In the early days some canny Lourdes citizens had visions of exploiting the spring and turning the town into a flourishing thermal resort like Aix-les-Bains or Vichy.
They were bitterly disappointed when analysis revealed that the water contained no curative or medicinal properties whatever. It was found to be “similar in composition to most water found in mountainous areas where the soil is rich in calcium.”
However, a bacterial study of the bath waters did bring a remarkable discovery. The Medical Bureau, curious to learn why no infection resulted when one diseased patient after another was bathed in the same water, took samples from the baths and had them analyzed. The reports showed extreme pollution-streptococcus, staphylococcus, colibacillus, and all sorts of other germs. Yet, astonishingly, when guinea pigs were inoculated with this polluted water they remained perfectly healthy. At the same time, two out of three guinea pigs died when inoculated with water from the river Seine containing much the same bacilli.
Hence the shrine’s devotees have an extraordinary regard for Lourdes’ water, as is attested by the following dramatic footnote: At the end of the day the stretcher- bearers and nurses often dip a glass of water from the baths and drink it as an act of faith.
The service of these voluntary workers is lavish and untiring. Many of them are themselves cures of former years, and their mere presence-the fact that they are now obviously strong and well-gives tremendous inspiration and hope to the sick.
The brancardiers, as the stretcher- bearers are called, come from all walks of life-generals, mechanics, judges, clerks, bankers, civil servants. There are more than 2000 of them in the permanent association, each pledged to give a certain amount of time each year. They are on duty from dawn until midnight, and sometimes later. Their tasks are heavy, their meals uncertain, their rest slight and often broken by emergency calls, for during the busy season they must care for the sick from as many as 22 pilgrim trains a day.
Every brancardier is given a small handbook of rules, the last of which is: “He must pray without ceasing.” The brancardiers ask nothing for themselves but the privilege of serving. “In 30 years’ service,” the president of their order told me proudly, “I have never once been refused by a brother brancardier, or even heard a murmur from him, when I asked him to perform one more hard job at the end of the day.”
The volunteer nurses, of whom there are likewise about 2000 enlisted from all social classes, also work indefatigably. They run up and down long flights of stairs, carry bedpans, change fetid dressing, bathe malodorous wounds. They do it cheerfully, joyfully, and with constant prayer.
Indeed the devotion, the spirit of dedication and self-giving that permeates the whole place, is a powerful element in the Lourdes atmosphere. Hundreds of people look forward to giving up their vacation time to this work, year after year. The girl in the souvenir shop at my hotel comes from England every year and works in the shop mornings so that she can help at the baths in the afternoon. The girl at the Cook’s Travel Agency, who works all day, goes every evening to help at the Grotto until midnight.
All these people find the utmost happiness in such service. As one stretcher- bearer said, “These few days at Lourdes each August fix me up for the whole year. I live for 12 months on what I get here in just this one week!”
Early each morning you meet them swinging along the Esplanade on their way to the Mass-the leather-harnessed brancardiers carrying the stretcher cases, pushing the tragic little carriages. Among the “grands malades”-the very sick- are sights to wring the heart: a girl with beautiful classic features peering out from the plaster cast imprisoning her from head to foot; a priest, white and shrunken, in the last stages of tuberculosis; a woman in a black veil, trying to conceal a face covered with flaming red sores; an old man hobbling along on twisted stumps. But as they pass, you see their lips moving in prayer, you hear the nurses and brancardiers softly humming Ave Maria.
Once the patients are back from Mass, the trek to the baths begins. Volunteer nurses bathe the patients one by one, lotioning those too ill to be immersed, but carefully removing all bandages so that the water makes direct contact. All morning, and from two till four in the afternoon, the lines of stretchers and little carriages go to and from the pool. Behind the sick stands a tightly packed mass of friends and relatives, all praying earnestly. The prayer and faith perpetually going up as with one voice constitute an almost living force whose rhythms get into the blood. One would have to be made of stone not to be moved by it.
At four o’clock the bells peal, and the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament forms at the Grotto. The loud-speakers open up and a great hymn rolls out, the huge crowd joining in unison. The procession then makes its long and impressive way along the Esplanade, each pilgrimage under its own banner. In the square the sick are lined up in two long rows, and as the Blessed Sacrament approaches, the ardour of their prayer mounts. Then the officiating bishop, robed in white and gold, leaves the shelter of his golden canopy carrying the monstrance. The sick raise their terrible faces for the blessing, the great crowd falls to its knees, and the Host is raised above each one. This is the moment when a sick one sometimes rises and, pale but triumphant, follows the Procession with calm, victorious tread up the steps and into the Church.
Every evening at eight o'clock, when the torchlight procession begins, the Domaine becomes a blazing field of light. Everyone carries a paper-shaded candle to the Grotto, where the various pilgrimages gather under their illuminated signs. The tiny candle flames form larger and larger blocks of light until they become a huge wheel of fire about the Grotto. Then the procession starts out through the enveloping darkness like a moving serpent of fire. As it winds down the path, there is a great burst of singing under the stars. It is the “Song of Bernadette”-Ave, Ave Maria. The procession continues around the great horseshoe ramp, down the side of one Esplanade and up the other. The doors of the Hospital of Our Lady of Lourdes, on the Esplanade, are opened, and from the rows of beds the sick join in the song, each in his own tongue.
For two hours the marching and singing continue, and then the marchers mass in the square before the Rosary Church. At a signal from the bishop all singing stops. Then, declaring their belief in God in Latin, the universal language of the Roman Catholic Church, all burst into the majestic chanting of the Credo. It is an experience no one who shares it will forget.
Thus, even on a normal day, Lourdes is a tremendously exhilarating and inspiring place. When a possible miracle occurs, it becomes positively electrifying. I saw it happen.