Lourdes Medical Bureau
The Lourdes Medical Bureau is a medical organisation based in Lourdes in France. It is an official organisation within the Sanctuary of Lourdes, but is administrated and run only by doctors. Its most celebrated function is the medical investigation of apparent cures associated with the shrine of Lourdes.
The term Medical Bureau is also given to a special meeting of doctors, which may be called to investigate such claims of inexplicable healing.
The apparitions at Lourdes took place between 11th February and 16th July 1858. After this time, reports of apparently miraculous cures began to accumulate. In 1859, Professor Vergez from the Faculty of Medicine at Montpellier was appointed to investigate the claims. Vergez decided that seven of the cases were genuinely inexplicable, prompting calls for the Roman Catholic Church to recognise these events as miracles.
In 1905, Pope Pius X decreed that claims of miraculous cures at Lourdes should "submit to a proper process"; in other words, to be rigorously investigated. At his instigation, the Lourdes Medical Bureau was formed.
The bureau is led by a single doctor. The current head is Dr. Patrick Theillier. The bureau has a modest office within the Domain (the large area of consecrated ground surrounding the shrine and owned by the Church).
Any doctor practising in or visiting Lourdes may apply to become a member of the Lourdes Medical Bureau. Additionally, nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists and members of other allied health professions may apply to become members. Members are given (and invited to wear) a small but distinctive badge displaying a red cross on a white background surmounted by the word Credo ("I believe"). However, members of any religious affiliation or none are welcomed.
Members are requested to notify the bureau of any visits which they make to Lourdes.
The Lourdes Medical Bureau publishes its own quarterly journal, Fons Vitae ("Fountain of Life") which is circulated to members. Additionally, case-reports of interest are circulated to members for perusal.
Investigation of Apparent Cures
Approximately 35 claims per year are brought to the attention of the Lourdes Medical Bureau. Most of these are dismissed quickly. Three to five each year are investigated more thoroughly, by drawing up a Medical Bureau, comprising any doctors who were present in Lourdes at the time the apparent cure took place (this is the rationale for all members to notify the bureau of their visits to Lourdes).
If this conference decides that further investigation is warranted, the case is referred to the International Lourdes Medical Committee (abbreviated in French to CMIL), which is an international panel of about twenty experts in various medical disciplines from around the world (and of different religious beliefs). CMIL meets annually. A full investigation requires that one of its members investigates every detail of the case in question, and immerses him/herself in the literature around that condition to ensure that up-to-date academic knowledge is applied to the decision. This investigator may also consult with other colleagues about the case.
This information is presented at a CMIL meeting. Also present at the meeting are the head of the Lourdes Medical Bureau and the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes (currently this is Jacques Perrier). The cured subject is not normally present.
For a cure to be recognised as medically inexplicable, certain facts require to be established:
- The original diagnosis must be verified and confirmed beyond doubt
- The diagnosis must be regarded as "incurable" with current means (although ongoing treatments do not disqualify the cure)
- The cure must happen in association with a visit to Lourdes, typically while in Lourdes or in the vicinity of the shrine itself (although drinking or bathing in the water are not required)
- The cure must be immediate (rapid resolution of symptoms and signs of the illness)
- The cure must be complete (with no residual impairment or deficit)
- The cure must be permanent (with no recurrence)
CMIL is not entitled to pronounce a cure "miraculous"; this must be done by the Church. The bureau may only pronounce that a cure is "medically inexplicable". A full investigation takes a minimum of five years (in order to ensure that the cure is permanent), and may take as long as ten or twelve years. It is recognised that, in rare cases, even advanced malignant disease or severe infection may spontaneously resolve.
The CMIL board votes on each case presented. A two-thirds majority is required for CMIL to pronounce a cure "inexplicable".
If CMIL decides a cure is medically inexplicable, the case is referred to the Bishop of the diocese where the cured subject lives. It is he who, in consultation with his own experts and with the Vatican, makes the decision about whether a cure is "miraculous". He may, for whatever reason, refute the claim.
Lourdes water flows from a spring at the same spot where it was discovered by Bernadette. The water is dispensed via a system of taps near the shrine, where pilgrims may drink it or collect it in bottles or other containers to take with them.
Pilgrims may also choose to immerse themselves in the water, at the "Baths". Although the water is fresh at the start of each day, by the end of a busy day, it is cloudy and dirty. Among some bath attendants, it was once considered an act of faith to drink a glass of the bath water at the end of the day, although this is no longer practised. One attendant boasted that he had consumed "a whole hospital-ful of microbes" without apparent ill effect.
The water from Lourdes was thoroughly analysed by independent chemists in 1858 and 1859. It does not have power in itself to cure anyone and has no special scientific or medical properties. Despite this, the water is itself a strong symbol of devotion for Lourdes pilgrims, and many willingly buy statues and rosary beads containing small vials of it, as well as taking home large plastic containers of it.
Dr. Patrick Theillier is the twelfth doctor to head the Lourdes Medical Bureau. He received his medical degree from Lille in 1964.
Medical Care of Visitors
Somewhat suprisingly, the medical bureau is not responsible for the direct medical care of pilgrims and visitors to Lourdes. Legally, the position is that the general practitioners and hospital in Lourdes are responsible for the medical care of anyone visiting Lourdes.
Despite this position, many pilgrim groups (especially those with large numbers of sick pilgrims) include their own doctor(s) and/or nurse(s), who take on the day-to-day medical care of their own group. Most are volunteers who give their time and services for free.
The Domain includes a treatment area called the Dispensary, which contains several bays for the treatment of acute problems. Although most such problems are minor (such as cuts and grazes), the Dispensary is equipped with full resuscitation facilities, airway equipment and a defibrillator. It also has a small electric ambulance.
The Dispensary is open during daylight hours and is staffed by nurses.
- Official Lourdes Medical Bureau website: http://www.lourdes-france.org/index.php?goto_centre=ru&contexte=en&id=491&id_rubrique=488
- Interview with Dr. Theillier: http://www.tfp.org/magazine/mag73/lourdes_medical.htm
- Article from student BMJ: http://www.studentbmj.com/issues/02/02/life/33.php