No big change at Lourdes, despite eased miracle rules

September 11, 2008

A pilgrim prays at Lourdes, 5 Nov 2006/Regis DuvignauBishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes caused a stir two years ago when he announced the Roman Catholic Church wanted to create new categories for recognising sudden healings at the famous shrine because so few of them claimed there actually qualified under current rules as certified miracles. Sceptics promptly dubbed the new categories “miracle lite” and even Catholics wondered what was going on.

The bishop patiently explained that Lourdes only had a very simple yes/no approach to recognising a healing as a miracle. He wanted to provide some kind of official Church recognition for a pilgrim’s sudden recovery and the spiritual experience that went with it, even if it did not clear all the hurdles to be declared miraculous. These recoveries certainly felt miraculous to the recovered pilgrims involved and also strengthened their faith, he said. Asking the binary question “was it a miracle or not?” did not do justice to the whole experience these pilgrims had. Lourdes needed new categories of declared, unexpected and confirmed healings to take that into account.

Having spoken to Perrier about this back then, I called him this week to find out what progress had been made with these new categories. None, he said, to my surprise. The idea was so new and different that it would take about 10 years to catch on. Huh?

The news story from the interview (click here) sets out his explanation. Even with eased rules, any healing claim has to go through a medical inquiry that takes several years, just like the miracle claims. If the case is not classified as a miracle, the bishop from the pilgrim’s diocese then has to take it up to have it recognised as a healing. This may not be that easy either. All the normally talkative Perrier wanted to say about that was that some bishops were “more disposed to this than others.”

Cover of Bishop Jacques Perrier’s Lourdes bookPerrier’s new book, Lourdes: Le Miracle depuis 150 ans (Lourdes: Miracles for 150 years), recounts many stories of the miracles recognised by Lourdes and some that weren’t. It has just appeared in French. The most intersting part is the end where he explains how Lourdes, which was not all about miracles in the beginning, developed into a battle ground between the Church and the rising ranks of scientists challenging its teachings in the 19th century. He writes: “The model was binary — is this a curable or incurable illness? Was the healing explicable or inexplicable? A natural process or against the laws of nature? This model is the fruit of a scientistic epoch that corresponds neither to our culture today nor to Catholic theology.”

Perrier wants to shift to focus from asking a scientific question (is it inexplicable or not?) to appreciating the spiritual experience a recovered pilgrim has. What do you think about this?

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