A transcript of a BBC Radio 4 broadcast.
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Originally broadcast on Friday, Friday
11 January 2002, 11.00am
Presented by Dr. Raj Persaud
Raj Persaud: "We're in the central square of Lourdes and there's literally thousands of people - most of them fairly elderly - congregating here. A lot of them have brought their own chairs to sit on. It's very quiet, given what a large crowd there is here. People don't seem to be talking to eachother - they seem to be almost reverential. A lot of them have their heads bowed - a very introspective atmosphere and you feel that when you're talking, you should really be whispering."
Guide: "The grotto where Bernadette saw Our Lady 18 times in 1858. It's a cave - grotto means cave. You can see the people filing in. Inside you can see the spring Bernadette discovered. It's covered by a piece of glass. You can see the water trickling down. The statue of Our Lady in the niche in the grotto - it's in the exact spot where she appeared to Bernadette."
Raj Persaud: Lourdes must be the strangest tourist destination in the world. 100,000 seriously ill people come every year - many on wheelchairs or borne on stretchers - to mingle with millions of able bodied pilgrims or camera-carrying tourists.
There are 30,000 hotel beds in a town of just 15,000 permanent residents. But, in the midst of it all, lies the sanctuary - several square kilometers of ring-fenced holy ground containing three churches and the famous grotto where Bernadette Subaru saw visions of the Virgin Mary over 140 years ago.
Any pilgrims looking for spiritual guidance amidst a maze of garish souvenir shops, can turn to Father Liam Griffin, who is the official tour rep. for English speaking visitors.
"Father Griffin, we're walking in the sanctuary here, at the moment. There are thousands of pilgrims here today. How important is Lourdes within the Catholic Church?"
Liam Griffin: "Lourdes is a place of pilgrimage. It is the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Subaru back in 1858 and in that way it is an important place of prayer. According to our statistics about six million people come here every year. They will be in organised pilgrimages and also coming as individual pilgrims or as visitors."
Raj Persaud: "We're standing now, just about 50 yards away from the actual grotto where there's a queue of several hundred pilgrims, queuing. We're having to use umbrellas now because it's drizzling just slightly. We had to stop recording as we passed it [the grotto] because it seemed to get very quiet even though we're surrounded by thousands of people."
Liam Griffin: "One of the things, here, that's expected is that there is silence always in front of the grotto to allow people to come and to pray quietly as they wish themselves. And one of the things that people always remark on is that calm that they experience in front of the grotto."
Raj Persaud: "I suppose that's one of the things that I find really amazing is that many people come here for their own reasons but you would expect a greater sense of seeing people looking troubled because they're often coming here because of problems of some description. Yet they don't seem to look troubled. You don't get a sense of great stress here.
Liam Griffin: "Coming here you see someone who is worse off than yourself and in that way gives them a sense of 'I'm not as bad as I think I am." There's always somebody worse but at the same time it gives them the sense that, "Yes, there are other people like me as well"."
Raj Persaud: "Psychiatrists in Jerusalem report that some people who come to that very holy place are so overwhelmed by the experience that don't want to leave. Is that your experience of people who come to Lourdes as well?"
Liam Griffin: "Yes, it is. People say 'I would love to stay here permanently'. But, to a certain extent, that's an escape. They come her for an experience. They have that experience. Then I think that they have to take that experience back with them and to try to live that in their lives.
Raj Persaud: What is it about this place - this experience - that attracts so many people? Lourdes has long been associated with the miraculous. The spring, which Bernadette discovered in 1858, is said to have healing properties and the place has been linked with sudden, dramatic cures of the seriously ill.
Interviewee #1: "My daughter had bronchitis. The doctor said, 'No way can she travel". But I said to myself - I didn't tell him - I brought her."
Raj Persaud: "Was she helped by coming?"
Interviewee #1: "Yes, she was and she went in the baths as well."
Raj Persaud: "Did she get better?"
Interviewee #1: "Yes, she did."
Raj Persaud: "And you think that was because of Lourdes or something spiritual?"
Interviewee #1: "Yes, it was because he said there was no way she travel because she had this terrible bronchitis and I said, 'No, I'm not listening, I'm just going'. Faith."
Raj Persaud: "Did you tell the doctor afterwards that you brought her?"
Interviewee #1: "No, I didn't because he may have told me off."
Raj Persaud: "So, why do you think she got better then?"
Interviewee #1: "In my faith - her faith, going in the baths. I can never come to Lourdes without going in the baths."
Interviewee #2: "Well, this time I came to say thank you because I came last year. My sister-in-law was waiting, on the waiting list, for a lung transplant and she was given four weeks to live. And I came here hoping that a small miracle might happen. I got home (I'm getting emotional now) and my brother rang me to say, 'She's got a chance - she's got a lung and she's got to go in [to hospital]'. So, I've just come back to say thank you."
Raj Persaud: But in the 21st century, I'm puzzled by why more and more people are coming to Lourdes each year. Are they looking for something that modern science can't offer?
Andrew Walker: "We've gone through a much more intellectual, rational age where science is perhaps the dominant discourse in academic life these days. It seems to proclude miracles and modern Christians are divided as to whether they still can occur or whether they only existed in the past."
Raj Persaud: Andrew Walker is professor of theology, religion and culture at King's College London.
Andrew Walker: "The whole of Christianity is, rightly or wrongly, based on the idea that a man, who was also God was raised from the dead. You can't get anything more miraculous than that. But it doesn't alter the fact that even if there were no miracles, I think from a sociological point of view, we do need to believe in the impossible. You find it in Hinduism and Christianity and Judaism. And the modern day can be rather depressing sometimes. The notion of ecstasy literally means to stand outside one self and there's a certain theatrical joy about the possibility that God can intervene in the world and change things. I think that, even from an anthropological point of view, is something that's deeply ingrained in many human beings if not all."
Raj Persaud: Yet medicine is responsible, daily, for thousands of apparent miracles. Conditions, that carried a death sentence only few years ago, are now routinely treated. Implants allow the deaf to hear. Transplants bring sight to the blind. Someone from the biblical past visiting us today would be overwhelmed by these routine miracles of medicine that take place in our temples of science, the modern hospital.
"But here in Lourdes, South-West France, millions of the faithful visit the shrine each year, drawn by its fame for miracle cures injecting some 200 million pounds into the local economy. Yet since 1862, only 66 of nearly seven thousand claimed cures have been officially recognised by the Catholic Church - a rate of success not exactly credible by the standards of modern medicine. So why is it acceptable in Lourdes? Might the fact that these miracles are still happening today be part of the answer? In 1999, Jean-Pierre Bely became the most recent person officially confirmed to have been cured at Lourdes."
Jean-Pierre Bely: "The illness began in 1971-72 - at first very discreetly. There were very minor symptoms. Slight manifestations of the disease such as fatigue a lack of suppleness and mobility in my hands, pins and needles in my fingertips. I worked as a nurse in a hospital so I just put it all down to stress. Over the years, things got worse but the actual diagnosis wasn't made until 1984, after a particularly violent attack that left me partly paralysed. It was after this that I went into hospital and the doctors carried out a thorough examination - a lumbar puncture, blood tests and so on. Afterwards the doctor, who I knew from my work as a nurse, said to me, 'Jean-Pierre, prepare yourself for the worst, I think you have multiple sclerosis'."
Raj Persaud: By 1987, Jean-Pierre was bed-ridden receiving a 100% state invalidity benefit and he even had his house modified structurally to accommodate his extreme disability. Later that year, he was persuaded to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. While taking part in morning mass, he was overcome by a strange experience.
Jean-Pierre Bely: "At that moment, everything was turned upside-down and I was sucked into a whirlwind of emotion - of joy, of peace and an extraordinary feeling of serenity that came over me which remains with me still, to this day."
Raj Persaud: The second part of the cure took part later that same day.
Jean-Pierre Bely: "I was lying in the sickroom, lying on the bed and felt terribly cold like an intense chill in my bones. But slowly it got warmer and warmer until it felt like a fire burning through the whole of my body. I was overwhelmed by it. I heard this voice, like an order, 'Get up and walk!'. And then, all of a sudden, I don't know how, I found myself sitting up on the bed - my legs dangling over the edge and I started to touch the back of my hands. I realised I regained mobility and sensitivity in my spine and shoulders which had been blocked for years. They were normal. In fact, you could say that I'd found normality again."
Raj Persaud: By the time Jean-Pierre, who was now able to walk again returned home, all signs of his crippling illness had vanished and remain so today. The job of establishing that Jean-Pierre's cure was authentic fell initially to the Lourdes medical bureau. The head of that bureau is Dr. Patrick Tellier. I asked him how the bureau goes about establishing that a cure is genuine.
Patrick Tellier: "It's a long and difficult process of examination, making sure that every possible precaution has been taken so that we can arrive at a conclusion that there really has been a true cure and that the explanation for this cure lies beyond the bounds of science. We begin by questioning the claimant, their doctor, the family and friends. We gather all the medical documentation that existed before the cure took place as well as any that appear after the cure.
Raj Persaud: The very first claimed cure goes back to the time of Bernadette in 1858. But it wasn't until 1865 until the sick began turning up at Lourdes in considerable numbers. In fact, so many began to claim that they had experienced miraculous cures that eight years later a medical bureau was established to weed out cases, which through fraud or wishful thinking, might undermine faith in the special powers of the grotto. Even today the circumstances of the cure must meet the strict criteria laid down by the first medical bureau back in the nineteenth century.
Patrick Tellier: "There are seven criteria that must be met before we can pronounce on a cure. Firstly, the illness must be acute - a serious condition. Secondly, it must be a medically recognised illness that's been properly diagnosed. Thirdly, the illness must be shown to be organic - it should be examined using established medical tests - x-rays, brain scanners and so on. The forth condition is that it must be shown that no medical treatment that the patient is currently undergoing could explain the fact of the cure. No the moments of the cure is the fifth criteria and I'll come back to that at the end. The sixth and seventh criteria is that the cure must be lasting and complete - in other words, not a temporary remission that sometimes happens, but a complete and lasting cure of all the symptoms. Coming back to the moment of the cure, this is crucial to our decision. The cure must be sudden complete and instantaneous. What's more, at that precise moment that patient must realise that they are cured and that the cure has a spiritual significance. They must come personally to announce that they have been cured by the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes."
Raj Persaud: Not only do the local medical bureau get involved but an international committee has also been set up consisting of at least twenty doctors from all over Europe who meet each year to review every plausible case. It's a process which demands a huge commitment from the patient as Jean-Pierre Bely explained.
Jean-Pierre Bely: "My medical files and records were sent to the medical bureau here in Lourdes complete with a letter from me and one by my GP explaining the stages and experience of my illness. The medical bureau asked if they could examine my case - the illness and the cure. I felt very reticent because of the time it would take. The whole process took about eleven years - each year I would meet bodies of doctors sometimes as many as a hundred at any one time. They would ask me numerous questions - intimate questions that were about very personal aspects of my life. I found the whole thing rather unpleasant but I answered these questions because I thought that it would help others. They also put me through all sorts of tests including one for my brain - magnetic resonance imaging. At one stage I thought that they were checking to see if I was right in the head. Eventually, in 1999, they decided to close my medical file and the case was referred to the bishop."
Raj Persaud: It's the job of the job of the international committee to decide on the case before passing it on to the church. But neither body, however, will use the term miracle officially. The doctors announce that the cure is medically inexplicable, whilst the church announce that the cure has been a gift or a sign from God. Dennis Daly is one of the English-speaking doctors who examined Jean-Pierre's case. While some emphasise the moment of cure as crucial, the controversy is usually centred on what was actually wrong with the person in the first place.
Dennis Daly: "The argument is always about diagnosis because without a diagnosis nothing is explained or explicable. So someone has a bone tumour and they have a biopsy. The biopsy is examined and a diagnosis is made. Ten years later, someone is going to say, well, was that diagnosis correct?"
Raj Persaud: "In other words, was it a malignant tumour?"
Dennis Daly: "Absolutely. I can remember a case - an Italian soldier - with a tumour of his pelvis. That biopsy was sent to half a dozen in bone tumours and all of them disagreed."
Raj Persaud: "But have you ever met a case where there wasn't this difficulty and you were impressed by a medically inexplicable event?"
Dennis Daly: "No."
Raj Persaud: "Never?"
Dennis Daly: "If I had been convinced that Monsieur Bely had MS, I would have certainly voted for this being inexplicable having been bed-ridden for, what nearly two years, he could walk. He was so frightened by it, he was afraid of frightening the other patients. So that's a very remarkable case, in any case. Now did he have MS or not? I don't think he had MS, personally. It was in the days before MRI scanning was available to give us concrete proof. But even if his illness was functional, it's still a very remarkable thing."
Raj Persaud: "By functional, I suspect you're doing this thing that doctors do. Which is, you're really speaking in a euphemism - what you really mean is was it psychological or psychiatric?"
Dennis Daly: "Exactly, yes."
Raj Persaud: "Well, I've met Monsieur Bely in Lourdes and he's certainly convinced that a miracle occurred."
Dennis Daly: "Yes, of course he is."
Raj Persaud: "So you voted against though in his case being a miracle. So what did you think had happened?"
Dennis Daly: "I didnít know. I voted against it because it was said. "Here is a man who had multiple sclerosis who is now better". I, and other members of the committee, said we're not convinced that he had MS in the first place."
Raj Persaud: "Can I ask, how close was the vote?"
Dennis Daly: "Very close. I honestly can't remember, it was a matter of two or three votes. I'm sceptical by nature, it's part of my of my training as a physician just as itís part of it's yours as a psychiatrist and I would want proof, proof, proof, proof, proof before I would accept it as such. The fact that the person involved believes it's a miracle, his family believes it's a miracle, his priest believes it's a miracle. That's fine. This aspect of Lourdes has never been the most important to me. I was attracted to Lourdes by miracles of another nature - miracles of faith. People's lives being transformed by a visit to Lourdes. People accepting their fate, for example, calmly facing death after a visit. That's the real issue and that's the real miracle of the place."
Raj Persaud: "It's nine in the evening, I've just come out of my hotel in Lourdes and like hundreds of other people, I'm joining the torch-light procession which is held every day for roughly six months between April and October. The torch-lights that people are carrying are a single candle that's protected by a paper shield. From afar, they look like fireflies - the shimmering of the light of the torches. Because people are holding the lights quite close to their faces, you get a strange sense of people's faces being illuminated and that's all that you're seeing in the night and that you get a sense a an ethereal feel to that. This is a very important part of the rituals of Lourdes because this is one of the most magical experiences. Even if you're not a particularly religious person, coming out here at night with these thousands of people going around the sanctuary saying their hail Marys and this solemn very patient procession. People aren't talking and they're just being left with their very private thoughts but at the same time you're surrounded by thousands of people doing exactly the same thing. So it's a sort of cross between a group experience - a community experience - a communion experience - and also something very individual - something introspective. That's extraordinary - I've never experienced anything like this before."
Interviewee #4: "I never really wanted to come until I was sent the first time. I'd got visions of commercialism and I found it one of those places where you experience a lot of people without any over-piosity just finding peace. Going away contented, somehow reassured in themselves as people."
Raj Persaud: "A psychiatrist might say that it's a kind of group therapy."
Interviewee #4: "Yeah, but the church was there before psychiatry. I don't think there's a problem with that in the least. Being together as human beings, that's society and we are human and we're created to be here with one another so there's no therapy being in a group it's just about being together."
Raj Persaud: "So how are you finding Lourdes?"
Interviewee #5: "Brilliant. Fabulous experience."
Raj Persaud: "Which of the things that you've done while you've been here have you found particularly important experiences?"
Interviewee #5: "The baths were the nicest experience. It's scary when you come to do it. When they put you into the water, you just come out and you feel brilliant. You have to strip off completely and they wrap you in a gown and these two ladies lead you into a marble bath. You say a prayer and they get you to lie down - it's freezing cold water. Once you get back out and you're putting your clothes back on, you're completely dry. Though you haven't dried yourself you're actually dry. It's brilliant - it's a lovely experience."
Raj Persaud: "Did you do that for any particular reason?"
Interviewee #5: "I did - for a bit of healing because I had an illness last year. I had a very bad depression and I came out here just to see if it would do something for me."
Raj Persaud: "And has it been helpful?"
Interviewee #5: "It has. It's been really helpful. It gave me time to reflect and to think. You can spend a lot of time in th grotto and think of all the things that have happened and definitely it has helped me and awful lot."
Raj Persaud: This, and other testimony I heard, bears out a British study on the psychological impact of Lourdes on twenty-four people, all seriously unwell. Whilst none of the pilgrims received any actual physical improvement, all but two had profoundly decreased anxiety and depression up to ten months following the visit. Scientists are rigourous about the difference between subjective and objective benefits but is this so important to pilgrims and should it be?
"It seemed to me when I was going around Lourdes that miracles, medical miracles in particular, hadn't just a powerful role in terms of the experience of recovery, but to other believers who came there was a lot of gossip and talk about miracles they'd heard about. Talk of a fairly uncritical nature, I have to say, so what about miracles in terms of other people's beliefs - hearing about miracles having occurred."
Andrew Walker: "This is terribly important. This isn't just a feature of Catholic miracles, but of the so-called Pentecostal tradition where they have a great deal of talk about miracles such as speaking in strange languages, visions, particularly healings. Very often the truth of the matter is that, in your local church, you've never seen a miracle. But isn't it wonderful that you can hear a story down the road of somebody who was healed keeps the juices going. It keeps you believing that God is real. Even if he's not working in your church, he's working in one down the road."
Raj Persaud: It's perhaps no surprise that research has confirmed what millions of pilgrims have always known, that visiting Lourdes profoundly improves your mental state. But this raises troubling questions for a doctor like myself. After all, I prescribe anti-depressants to my patients, why not visits to Lourdes? What's stopping me? Well, personally I'm unhappy with the idea that just because something may seem inexplicable at the moment, but it means that the only account left is a spiritual solution. This is a leap of faith too far for doctors like me. But for doctors, like Patrick Tellier or indeed theologians like Andrew Walker, it's not.
Andrew Walker: "Many of the things that we do in everyday life are intellectual leaps. Does my wife really love me? We commit ourselves to the fact that she does but it's not always clear as to whether this is so. So I don't really think that one should highlight Lourdes as a particular intellectual leap, as if this is more problematic than most intellectual leaps that we make. I think that the point of it is that, whether you believe in miracles or whether you don't, both have to rest on a certain sort of faith. A scientific faith that says that there's no God is nevertheless a faith statement. The faith statement is, that I have decided that, on whatever evidence, that there is no God. It is a faith. It's not rational intellectual certitude that makes you to believe what you do any more than a theological person makes there decision entirely on theological grounds. It may on all sorts of reasons. It's another way of saying, we can be agnostic about science as well as religion."
Raj Persaud: Perhaps the key point about a miracle is that it is a mechanism for providing hope, whereas, in many circumstances, there is no hope. For me, the danger of modern medicine is that, when it runs out of technological answers, as it does for millions of the seriously ill, it turns its back and offers nothing else. Into the chasm of despair steps religion, miracles and hope. Lourdes as a concrete place you can visit provides an opportunity to renew your belief that something good can still come of catastrophe. In an era of advancing scientific understanding, creating ever less room for the inexplicable, what is the future for Dr. Patrick Tellier and his medical committee, his miracle men. Will miracles soon exist only in the past?
Patrick Tellier: "The fact that there are fewer physical cures than a hundred years ago doesn't bother me because this is normal. It's what you'd expect as medicine has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past fifty years. Today when you're suffering, you go to your doctor - your first thought isn't to go to Lourdes. Most of the patients who come to Lourdes will not return cured but these physical cures are not the only miracles that exist. They are only the visible miracles. I'm convinced that these physical cures remind us - reveal to us - in fact they confirm for us - that there are countless invisible cures here in Lourdes. Spiritual cures - you could say psycho-spiritual cures - cures for the wounds of life that all of us have and that all of us live with. In this tough aggressive century there's a need for this kind of cure, where so many of us have lost our way."
Raj Persaud: "This is a slightly cruel question but given the length of time that the medical committee uses and waits to confirm that a cure has been miraculous, has anyone died waiting for there cure to be confirmed as miraculous?"
Patrick Tellier: "Well, I can't recall anyone but the thing is that, even if you have benefited from a cure, it won't prevent you from dying one day."