Back in the 1980s, I wrote a profile of a remarkable Episcopal priest in Colorado who was approaching his 100th birthday. He had been raised in pre-World War II Japan — the son of a samurai.
As a young man he became terribly ill and slipped into a coma. At one point, doctors said he flatlined — but they were able to restart his heart. When he awakened, he reported having a near-death experience in which a man in white robes told him that he would live and that there was much work for him to do.
The young man knew almost nothing about Christianity, other than a brief exposure to the New Testament in an English-language class. Nevertheless, he truly believed that this man was Jesus. This led to his conversion, the priesthood and a journey to America. During the war, the U.S. government put him in an internment camp — a painful episode in a long and amazing life.
Now, here is a question linked to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in). Was this man’s transformation during his NDE a “miracle”? That was the term he used when he described it.
Actually, his vision took place during a life-and-death medical drama that was unusual — but these things happen. Was there a way to test his claims in a laboratory? No. Near-death experiences happen.
What is a “miracle,” anyway? This brings us to a recent 60 Minutes report that, on the CBS website, was given this headline: “France’s Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes — Where 70 medical miracles have been recognized by church officials.”
This must-see-TV report ventures into complicated territory where faith, science and centuries of church tradition overlap. The best thing about it is that it allows people to share their beliefs as well as information that, well, can be studied in a laboratory. The visuals are stunning, as thousands of pilgrims visit the site seeking healing for infirmities of body, mind and soul.
The Roman Catholic Church has, in the 160-year history of Lourdes pilgrimages, studied thousands of reports about miracles linked to the shrine. This brings us to the heart of this report:
Stories of inner peace and acceptance don’t meet the bar for the Office of Medical Observations, and with just 70 medical miracles recognized in 160 years, you’d have better odds playing the lotto. Yet, thousands of faithful line up at the baths and at this grotto — where the first miracle is said to have occured.
This sanctuary with its three basilicas and 25 chapels is laid out like a grand theater complex, its many stages offering dozens of pious performances throughout the day. The finale — a candlelit procession every night.
There would be none of this, were it not for Saint Bernadette. According to Catholic Lore, in 1858, a mysterious woman appeared in this grotto to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old peasant girl. Jean-Marc Micas, the bishop of Lourdes, says the woman spoke with soubirous several times over five months. …
When word got out the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary, had appeared in Lourdes, people flocked to this grotto and, within days, started making claims of miracle cures: the ability to walk, restored sight. Worried about fueling mass hysteria, the church set up the Office of Medical Observations in 1883 to investigate the claims.
What about today, in an age of skepticism and hard-core science?
This brings the 60 Minutes team face to face with Sister Bernadette Moriau, who came to Lourdes seeking healing and the heard and “inner voice” telling her that she would be healed of the paralysis that had warped her body.
There was no #TriggerWarning before the report noted:
She said she returned home rejuvenated spiritually, but physically — she felt worse. After three days in excruciating pain, she told us she suddenly found the strength to walk to the chapel and pray.
Sister Bernadette Moriau (Translation): Then I felt some kind of heat coming into my body. I felt relaxed. But I didn’t really know what that was meaning. And in my room, I heard this inner voice again telling me, “Take all your braces off.” I didn’t think twice. And I started taking my foot brace off. And my foot that used to be crooked was straight. And I could actually put it on the ground without feeling any pain.
Bill Whitaker: All of a sudden — your foot was straight?
Sister Bernadette Moriau (Translation): Yes, like that. Like, the way it is just now. And so I kept going.
She says she took off the braces and stopped the morphine — all at once.
Was this a “miracle,” since Sister Bernadette’s condition was permanent — with no possible cure?
This leads to the testimony of Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, president and residing physician at the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. He has lead investigations of myriad claims of healing, working with a strict, seven-step definition of what is and what is not a “miracle.”
Here is the most crucial quotation in the report, for those studying its journalism DNA. Note: I added the numbers in this quotation to underline the criteria established by the church:
Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis: We looking for a (1) diagnosis. And if that diagnosis is a diagnosis of a (2) severe disease with a (3) severe prognosis, And then, we wanna make sure that that person is a person that was cured in a way that one would say (4) suddenly in a instantaneous way, in a (5) complete way, in a way (6) lasting in time. And my (7) seventh criteria that has to match is there must be no possible explanation to that cure.
Let’s read on:
Dr. De Franciscis, a practicing Catholic, told us what separates the more than 7,000 claims of cures from the 70 the church calls miracles, is an ungodly amount of medical documentation. And patients, like Sister Moriau, willing to put their lives under a microscope.
Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis: We sent her to — to different neurologists. We sent her to different rheumatologists, because of the diff — the specific case of her disease. We asked to repeat twice also some imagery — electrophysiology. We did all that you would do in medicine to make absolutely sure of her diagnose. And it was. …
Satisfied, Dr. De Franciscis sent Sister Moriau’s case to a group of 33 doctors and professors called the International Medical Committee of Lourdes. Its job is to determine whether a cure is what they consider “medically unexplained.”
You could call them the devil’s advocates.
In the end, this case met all the criteria — becoming the 70th verified “miracle” at Lourdes. The authorities welcome all skeptics to study the 10-pound file of lab work, x-rays, charts and other medical evidence related to this case (or the files on any other).
Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis: I have estimated I can affirm with absolute certainty that the case of Sister Bernadette had been reviewed, read, expertised by at least 300 physicians. … And if tomorrow morning any of our viewers is a doctor, and one day he stops in southern France and comes to see me and wants to look into the file of Sister Bernadette I’ll be delighted to — to show him. Because we have — everything is open, and collegial, and no secrets.
What is missing here?
The 60 Minutes team talked with other pilgrims, some of whom continue to pray for healing. Some have found peace with their conditions — at the spiritual level.
I realize that the report could not cover all of the complex theological and scientific issues linked to “miracles,” beginning with the mystery of why some are healed and many are not.
Then there are people who have visions and experiences — such as the NDE described at the top of this post — that cannot be studied in a laboratory. The term “miracle” is often applied in cases in which, to cite a common example, a person prays for healing and his or her cancer goes into remission, sometimes forever.
Is that a miracle? Truth is, doctors do not understand why some tumors go into remission or even vanish. Is there an explanation? Can doctors link specific prayers to a specific case of remission? Not really. Is the remission a violation of natural law? Not really — since doctors struggle to understand why remissions, while not common, do happen in some cases.
In the podcast, I worked my way through a list of other situations in which believers apply the term “miracle” to remarkable events in their lives (I’ve had one or two such cases in my own life). Sometimes, believers simply say: What are the odds that X, Y or Z “just happened”?
In Eastern Orthodoxy, we tend to apply the term “mystery” to these cases (like the mini-drama in my “On Religion” column last week).
Again, this 60 Minutes report dared to let believers — laypeople, clergy and scientists — describe their experiences and their research. And then there is the interview in which the elderly Sister Bernadette walking through a garden, free of pain and paralysis. Explain that?
Here’s hoping that the 60 Minute team follows up on this report. You know that their email in-boxes are exploding, with comments by believers and skeptics alike.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.