A Protestant Looks At Lourdes Part 3.

One afternoon I sat on the terrace of the Cafe Royale, directly across from the entrance to the Domaine. Everybody “falls in” there at the end of a hard day. The brancardiers unharness. The directors of the pilgrimages lean back in their chairs and relax over coffee and little cakes. Some of the old priests enjoy a joke and a cigar with the younger men, and perhaps a thimble of cognac in their coffee.
The Hospital of the Sept Douleurs is just a few steps away, and stretcher-bearers and invalid carriages go by constantly. Buses swing by too, bearing crowds of singing pilgrims-the Basques and Italians waving a last good-bye to the Dutch and English in the cafe, with whom they have shared their five pilgrimage days. Traffic is terrific, as the different groups and organizations pour out of the Domaine after the Procession.
Suddenly, through all the hubbub and commotion, there is a swirl of figures over at the gateway, and the mighty roll of the Magnificat. All spring to their feet, rush to the pavement, cross themselves excitedly. Something is happening. A cure perhaps-a miracle? Then you see them.
Following the long line of stretchers and carriages returning to the hospital comes a jubilant little procession: a group of brancardiers forming a guard of honour for a radiant young girl who walks as if on air. She is one of the Dutch pilgrims, she had been carried down to the Grotto that afternoon on a stretcher, after four years in bed with a tubercular spine. She is returning on her own two feet, singing and praising God.
Everybody joins in the singing. The Dutch and Spanish women hug each other. The little boys throw their caps in the air and cheer. The waiters smile and bring a double order for everyone.
Was it a miracle, really? Time will tell. But that girl’s eyes-!
I recognized one of the “unbelieving” French doctors, standing at the curb quite near me. “Well, what did you think of it?” I asked casually.
“It was-” He suddenly turned and fled into a shop, handkerchief held up to his face. I didn’t realize until afterwards that he was weeping. Never again did he have anything derisive to say about miracles.
At dinner everybody talks about it. The Dutch are staying at our hotel, and one of their nurses tells the wonderful story over and over. She is impatient because the pilgrimage doctor still hesitates to admit a miracle. He wants to wait and see. “But it’s true!” the nurse insists. “I saw it with my own eyes! Four of us had to carry the girl to the bath. And after we had plunged her in, stiff as a board, I saw her arms and legs bend. And I saw her sit down on the edge of the bath and help us while we put her clothes back on again!”
“She left her cast and brace at the Grotto,” another verifies joyfully. “The other patients are enraptured. They had all been praying for this girl day and night-she was the worst of our cases.”
She is right. There is neither envy nor disappointment among the ambulant patients who have been denied their own cures. All round the big dining room there are faces alight, shining eyes and triumphal smiles of delight at their comrade’s good fortune. It is something to cherish and remember, for the joy in these facts, the spirit in this room, transcend description.
One might think the uncured would regard their pilgrimage as an unmitigated tragedy. Instead they seem to find at Lourdes a new hope and a new strength with which to bear their burdens. Some patients, of course, do return home disappointed and rebellious, and still passionately longing for the cure that was denied them. But they are rare.
They come to Lourdes weary and worn with pain, hardly able to make the dreadful journey, resenting their sickness and wondering why God has thus afflicted them-a burden to themselves and to those who bring them. At Lourdes station the humblest of them, the despairing and the lost, are warmly welcomed, gently transported, tenderly looked after. In their quarters they are surrounded with all that lavish care, love and devotion can give. At the shrine they find themselves in company with hundreds of other sick-many worse off than they-and the transformation begins. They start to think about their neighbour in the next bed or in the next little carriage. They pray for him and soon begin to long, above everything else, for his cure.
In sum, they forget themselves. They soon become absorbed in love of God and love for fellow man, the two great solvents for all human ills, as Jesus taught.
Time after time I have been told at Lourdes-by doctors, nurses, brancardiers, even by the man who sweeps the paths: “The sick? Oh, Madame, they've forgotten about their own cure. All they care about is that the man in the next row shall get well. . . . ‘Don’t bother about me-that fellow over there needs you more.’ . . . ‘Never mind, nurse, I can wait.’ . . . ‘Look after this poor lady in the next carriage-she really needs attention.’”
Naturally the pain comes back again, but it hasn’t the same hold. Their minds are not centered on it any longer. And when the time comes to go home, though they haven’t been physically cured, though they know what hardships and suffering yet another pilgrimage will mean, their one cry is: “If only I can come back next year! If only I can come again to Lourdes!”
During my study of this shrine, which occupied more than a year, I looked up several famous cures, or miracles, as they are called. Perhaps the most astonishing of them was Guy Leydet, whose restoration from hopeless idiocy first drew my attention to Lourdes.
Today Guy Leydet is a tall, nice-looking lad of 14. When I visited his home in St. Etienne, where his father is a professor in a local business college, I found him happily running off with his friends to play football. His mother, a charming and very pretty woman, was proud of his standing in his classes, said he hoped soon to go to England as an exchange student.
But less than ten years ago he had the brain of an idiot. Doctors had pronounced the dread word: “Incurable.”
Guy Leydet was a normal child till the age of five. Then he was stricken with acute meningo-encephalitis-a brain disease that can wreck the nervous system. It paralyzed both arms and legs, caused frequent convulsions and epileptic fits, and, worst of all, finally brought about complete idiocy. The child could no longer even recognize his parents, and could utter only guttural sounds. This condition lasted for two years, and the parents all but ruined themselves financially in fruitless efforts to find a cure.
Finally they went to Lourdes. At the piscine, compassionate nurses dipped the rigid little boy into the water. His mother, fearing another convulsion, stood near anxiously, and they handed him back to her.
Then suddenly it happened.
Guy Leydet opened his eyes, reached his arms toward his mother and in a clear, childish voice cried, “Mama!” He then began to count his fingers, naming them over, as French children do. Moreover, he moved his arms and legs perfectly.
Back home the Leydets called in their doctor, who gazed in stupefaction at his former patient. He admitted that he could not understand it at all. “Well-try to re-educate the boy,” he said, still incredulous.
It was easy. The child’s mind rapidly reawakened, and he soon learned to read and write as well as play vigorously like other children. On September 26, 1947- one year after his cure-he was examined by 40 doctors at the Medical Bureau. Dr. Robert Dailly, a child specialist of Paris, tested his mental development for two hours. Then he announced simply: “This child is normal.”
The case provoked long and heated discussion at the Medical Bureau, for the cure of such a condition-of postencephalitic idiocy-was unprecedented. One major question tantalized the doctors. As one of them bluntly put it: “With what brain does this child think? What brain was he using when he stood up and suddenly called to his mother? Was it a new brain or the partially destroyed idiot’s brain he had a moment before?”
Whatever the answer, it was contrary to all natural laws, and in the end the 40 doctors unanimously declared that the child had been supernaturally cured. The case was never proclaimed a miracle because the doctors who attended the boy before his visit to Lourdes have absolutely refused to submit any records or certificates.
“But what do we care about that?” said the mother. “We have our boy-happy and well. Our Te Deums are sung right here at home, every day!”
Another famous cure I visited was Fernand Legrand. He had come to Lourdes as a grand malade more than 20 years ago, but one of the brancardiers there still remembers him vividly. “The most terrible case I ever helped to carry,” he told me.
I went to see Legrand at his home in Gisors, a small town near Paris. He is a cobbler and lives in a narrow house behind his modest shop. We sat by the fire in the cheerful little sitting room, and I studied his fine face. He is a man of 50 with the face of an Emerson, the hands of a shoemaker. As customers dropped in at intervals to claim a pair of boots, Fernand Legrand told me his story.
When he was a husky young fellow of 26 he met with a hunting accident, and the lower part of his left leg had to be amputated. He recovered from the operation, but a year later severe pains began in that leg, followed by numbness which gradually spread all over his body. The trouble was diagnosed as polyneuritis, involving particularly the spinal nerves and the spinal cord itself.
All the classic treatments were tried, but Legrand only grew worse. His legs became gangrenous and greatly swollen, the rest of his body as thin as a skeleton. He suffered tortures, and finally his fiancee persuaded him to go to Lourdes.
It took six men to get him from the automobile into the pilgrimage train, for Legrand could make no movement of any kind. Each effort, each disturbance of the bedclothes even, gave him excruciating pain. The journey was a horror.
His own physician, Dr. Edouard Decrette of Vernon, accompanied him and described the case with such concern at Lourdes that the Medical Bureau appointed Dr. Marc Clement of Hyeres to examine Legrand. Together Drs. Clement and Decrette went to the hospital, where they found that Legrand had just returned from his first bath.
Dr. Clement took the right leg out of its cast and bandages. “Look here,” he said to Dr. Decrette, “you told me he had a swollen leg. This one isn’t swollen, and it is dry.”
“Impossible!” said Decrette. Then, as he looked, he gave a quick exclamation. “But-since when?”
“Since my bath,” said the patient. “When they dipped me in the water I felt a moment of agonizing pain, as-though my arms and legs were being broken to pieces. Then a heavenly warmth spread through my body, my legs could bend, and I no longer had any pain.” Dr. Decrette, who had seen Legrand in such a horrible condition for so long, was so moved that it was several minutes before he could even speak.
Legrand’s recovery was complete. He has since returned to Lourdes nearly every year as a brancardier.
“Doesn’t your artificial leg make it difficult for you?” I asked.
“Difficult!” he laughed. “Madame, you should see me. Since my cure I can run like a rabbit, wooden leg and all. None of the brancardiers with real legs can get ahead of me!”
One evening, I had dinner with Jeanne Fretel, one of the most famous of recent Lourdes cures. When I met her at the doors of the Sept Douleurs Hospital, she had been on duty there since six o’clock that morning. Yet as she came swinging along in her nurse’s uniform, a slim girl with big dark eyes, she was fresh, smiling and unfatigued. As she sat opposite me in the hotel restaurant a few minutes later, laughing and chatting over the meal, it was hard to imagine how desperate was her plight five years ago. But her case history, one of the most completely documented at Lourdes, contains 80 pages of detailed hospital reports, laboratory analysis, X-ray records, etc., to prove it.
Jeanne was born in 1914 in the town of Sougeal, near Rennes. She came of simple people. She had her way to make. She was a waitress, practical nurse, mother’s helper. From childhood on, her health was precarious. In January, 1938, when she was 24, she was operated on for appendicitis. This proved to be the first of 13 operations, for she developed tubercular peritonitis. Her abdomen gradually increased in size, became hard and intensely painful. Nothing helped, and her condition continued to grow worse.
She was put aboard the train of the Rosary Pilgrimage unconscious, and arrived at Lourdes on Tuesday, October 5, 1948. No improvement occurred during the first three days there. On Friday morning she was carried, dying, to the Mass for the Sick. The priest hesitated to give her Communion because of her constant vomiting and extreme weakness, but her brancardier insisted, and she was given a bit of the consecrated wafer.
“It was then,” said Jeanne Fretel, “that suddenly I felt well and became aware, for the first time. that I was at Lourdes. They asked me how I felt. I said I felt very well. My abdomen was still hard and swollen, but I was not suffering at all.
“After Mass they took me to the Grotto on my stretcher. After some minutes there I had a sensation as if someone took me under the arms to help me sit up. I found myself in a sitting position. I looked around to see who had helped me, but could see no one. Then I had the feeling that the same hands that had helped me to sit up now took my hands and put them on my abdomen. I perceived that it had become normal. And then I was seized with an extraordinary hunger.”
The journey home was accomplished without fatigue, although she was on her feet in the train much of the time, tending the other patients. When her own physician, Dr. Alphonse Pelle, saw her he was speechless, and left the room, overcome. When he came back a few minutes later, the tears were running down his cheeks. He then gave Jeanne a rigorous examination, but could hardly believe his findings.
An interesting sidelight is the fact that Dr. Pelle was an agnostic and unbeliever- “hostile” to religion, the Medical Bureau report says. But it was his precise records and certificates that established the case as a miraculous cure. “I have been a terrible blow to Dr. Pelle’s scientific self-respect,” Jeanne said.
Jeanne is in perfect health now, and the long hours of her work as a practical nurse do not affect her at all. The life of a miraculee isn’t easy, however. Her correspondence is tremendous. Letters come from all over the world-from doctors, from sick people, from unbelievers wanting to be reassured. If she sends typewritten replies, people are not satisfied. The letters must be in her own hand, and after her day’s work she frequently stays up far into the night writing them.
When she comes to Lourdes, everybody points her out. Her work in the hospital is interrupted time and again by visitors, by relatives of the sick who want to see her, to touch her. Six persons came up and spoke to her while we were dining together at the hotel. “I can’t refuse them,” Jeanne Fretel said. “I can’t refuse anything, after what has been done for me.”
All the miracles I know about-and I have talked with many of them-have certain characteristics in common.
First, they are simple people, the poor and the humble. Not one came from a wealthy or impressive family. “The Blessed Virgin does not interest herself much in the rich,” they say at Lourdes.
Second, they seem to be immune to illness after their cure. They don’t get sick at all, even with common colds or digestive troubles. They are in excellent health at all times.
Finally, they have a poise, an inner dignity, that comes from the desire to be worthy of the great thing they have experienced. They are completely unassuming, and have no wish to exploit the publicity which surrounds them. They just want to give, in gratitude for what has been done for them.
Whatever one may consider is the real source of their cure, there is no slightest doubt that a transcendental influence has laid its hand upon these people and blessed them-not merely with a physical cure but with enduring serenity, peace and deep joy. I count it a privilege to have known them. But now come the crucial questions: What is the origin, the cause of all these cures? How do you explain them? If they are not miracles-that is, produced by some supernatural power- what are they?
The answer of the sceptics, both lay and medical, is a flat, “I don’t believe it! It’s too fantastic.”
When I was a young reporter in Asia, people in remote Indian and Chinese villages did not believe in the New York skyline either. Nothing I could say would change their conviction that it was “only a picture.” They had never seen such a place. It was something outside their experience. Therefore it could not be.
“Before you enter into a discussion about Lourdes with anybody,” says Dr. Blanton, “it will save time and much useless argument if you find out first if the person you are talking to was ever there.” After the rationalist physician has actually seen a cure his scientific cocksureness is severely shaken. He no longer avoids the word “miracle.” Instead he uses it freely-almost involuntarily.
He does not, however, necessarily concede that the miracles have a supernatural origin. One of the favourite explanations of Lourdes cures by rationalist doctors is that they are produced by “unknown natural forces”-unknown today, but whose laws may be uncovered tomorrow.
Most of the doctors at the Medical Bureau discount this theory. They point out that the action of the forces of nature is always uniform and unchanging. The law of gravity, for example, works in exactly the same way for everybody. If “unknown natural forces” were responsible for Lourdes cures, they would have to act the same for all persons under similar conditions. But the exact opposite is true. The “unknown forces” act neither constantly nor uniformly. They act today, but not tomorrow; for some people, but not for others. One of the baffling things about Lourdes cures is their extreme variability and unpredictability.
What, then, is the cause of the miracles? Many ascribe it to prayer.
When the great scientist, Charles Steinmetz of General Electric, was asked by his colleagues what was the most important line of research for them to follow next, he answered without hesitation: “Prayer. Find out about prayer!” Alexis Carrel has stated his conviction that “the power of prayer is the greatest power in the world.”
Writing about the miracles, Carrel has noted that “patients have been cured almost instantaneously of various afflictions such as peritoneal or bone tuberculosis, abscesses, osteitis, suppurating wounds, cancer, etc. In a few seconds, or at the most a few hours, wounds are cicatrized, pathological symptoms disappear, appetite returns. The miracle is characterized by an extreme acceleration of the processes of organic repair. No scientific hypothesis up to the present accounts for the phenomena, but the only condition indispensable for its occurrence is prayer. The patient does not need himself to pray or to have any religious faith; but someone around him must be in a state of prayer.
Dr. Vallet, former president of the Medical Bureau, does not believe that prayer in itself is capable of releasing the process of healing. Summing it up, he says that prayer is necessary, “but it is also necessary that God agree to it. These cures are not the result of accident but of an all-powerful Will which hears this prayer and Whom nothing resists, neither sickness-nor death.”

Nihil Obstat : W. M. Collins Censor Diocesan
Imprimatur :
 D. Mannix
Archiepiscopus Melbournensis 17th May, 1958