PARIS (Reuters) - When Bishop Jacques Perrier said the Roman Catholic Church would ease some criteria for miracles, skeptics foresaw a wave of pious believers claiming they had been healed at the famous shrine in his diocese of Lourdes.
New categories were needed, Perrier argued, because medical progress in recent decades had made it all but impossible to meet the strict scientific criteria for certifying miracles at the pilgrimage site in southwestern France.
Perrier proposed the new categories — declared, unexpected and confirmed healings — to allow the Church to officially honor the pilgrim’s recovery and the spiritual experience that went with it, even if it cannot be called miraculous.
Now, two years later and just before a visit to Lourdes this weekend by Pope Benedict, the bishop told Reuters there had been anything but a rush of healings. In fact, not a single new case of stunning recovery from serious illness has been established.
“This is a very difficult idea to get across because it is a graduated system,” Perrier said by telephone from Lourdes when asked about the reform that skeptics have dubbed “miracle lite.”
“A binary message — that something is black or white, yes or no — is easy,” he said. “But it will take at least 10 years to get people used to this idea.”
Of the six million pilgrims who visit Lourdes each year, about 40 claim they have been miraculously healed there. But doctors usually end up telling them their recoveries were not totally inexplicable.
There are at least four cases being examined now that could be declared healings if they are not recognized as full miracles, he said. But that could still take several years.
The Lourdes story goes back to 1858, when the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous reported seeing the Virgin Mary and being told to dig at a grotto for water. Soon, Catholics visiting the spot claimed their illnesses were healed by the water.
The Church set up a medical bureau to verify the claims. Among other criteria, the healing had to be inexplicable by science and could not be late effects of earlier treatments. A total of 67 healings have been declared miraculous so far.
Those criteria were not unsurmountable hurdles a century ago, when many diseases were incurable and many now routine treatments were unknown. But modern medicine has made the miracles Lourdes is famous for ever rarer.
Between 1907 and 1913, 33 healings were declared miraculous. Another 22 were declared between 1946 and 1965. But there have only been five declared miracles since then, the last in 2005.
Perrier denied trying to boost the Lourdes miracle total.
“The Church didn’t push the doctors to find miracles,” he said. “They said some healings were really remarkable and we should take them seriously.”
Even if the Lourdes doctors classify a recovery as unexpected, it is up to the bishop in the patient’s home diocese to issue the official confirmation.
“I have to try to convince a patient’s bishop to do it,” Perrier said. “Some are more disposed to this than others.”
To mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary at Lourdes, Perrier has just published a book in which he recounts how the shrine developed in a polemical climate as science was aggressively challenging the Church and its teachings.
“In the 19th century, the healings at Lourdes were able — and maybe that was their mission — to show medical science it still had a long way to go, and that human reality was much more complex than some simplistic explanations,” he wrote.
The new criteria shift the focus from scientific inquiry — can doctors explain it or not? — to a religious appreciation of the spiritual experience linked to an improbable healing.
“The legitimacy of Lourdes doesn’t need miracles,” he wrote. “Certified miracles are now very rare, but the number of pilgrims visiting Lourdes keeps on rising.”
Reporting by Tom Heneghan; editing by Robert Hart