Diagnosing miracles

7,000 people claim to have been cured at Lourdes, but the Catholic Church says only 1 per cent of those cases are miracles. Dr Michael Moran sits on the committee that decides which cures are medically unexplainable


Dr Michael Moran is a Belfast hospital registrar who is prepared to take a bit of surgical ribbing. He is studying to be an ear, nose and throat surgeon specialising in neck and head cancers. But occasionally during operations some of his colleagues query why he even bothers to scrub up.

“ ‘Sure you don’t need to operate on that patient,’ some of them have said to me. ‘Just stand beside them and they will be miraculously cured.’ ”

Moran doesn’t mind these rather lame gags; it’s part of operating-theatre banter. But, equally, he’d prefer not to be known as a miracle doctor. He is the first Irishman to be appointed to an international committee that evaluates cures at Lourdes. “It is not a miracle-determining committee. It is a cure-determining committee,” he stresses.

Moran says his function is not to determine whether a particular cure is down to a miracle at the grotto where 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous said the Virgin Mary appeared to her in 1858. That’s for the Catholic Church to adjudicate on.

“All we comment on is the fact that the person has had an inexplicable cure,” says the 34-year-old, who is from Finaghy, in south Belfast, and qualified in 2004 as a doctor from Queen’s University Belfast.

Moran has been going to Lourdes each year since he was 16, travelling on the annual July Down and Connor diocesan pilgrimage. He is a founder member of Seirbhís, an all-Ireland group of health professionals who volunteer to help at Lourdes.

Two years ago he was “surprised and honoured” to be appointed to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (Le Comité Médical International de Lourdes). He is one of 34 international members who have expertise in different medical areas and who help decide if cures are truly inexplicable.

Since 1858 about 200 million people have visited Lourdes, at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, and the town attracts about six million pilgrims a year. About 7,000 have claimed to have been cured at Lourdes, but only 69 have been recognised by the Catholic Church as miracles, the most recent last year.

That case was of Danila Castelli, an Italian woman who became seriously ill in 1982, first with high blood pressure, which led to a hysterectomy and annexectomy. Doctors later discovered a tumour near her bladder. In 1988 she planned to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic, in the US, but first she made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. After emerging from the baths in the grotto she reported that she felt an “extraordinary feeling of wellbeing”.

The medical committee examined her case, but it took until 2011 before it decided her cure was unexplainable. The Catholic Church last year decided it had been miraculous. That it took so long to confirm the cure – 23 years in the case of the committee – demonstrates that the checking process is very rigorous, says Moran.

Irish claims

There are no official Irish miracles at Lourdes, although Moran is sure there are Irish people who would claim to have been cured there.

The rarity of officially sanctioned cures is down to seven principles, known as the Lambertini criteria, named after Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, later Pope Benedict XIV, who devised them in the 1730s.

They state that people must have been suffering from illnesses that are serious and virtually impossible to cure; it must be established that any prior medical treatment bore no relationship to the cures; and cures must be instantaneous, complete and permanent.

“If any one of the seven criteria falls then you just have to discount it, and we are happy to discount it. It is not a marketing business,” says Moran. “The focus is almost to disprove.”

In an increasingly cynical and secular world, Moran knows there are many who are dismissive of Lourdes and the notion of miracles. But he says that his job is to apply the science and that people can believe or not believe after that.

He believes in the story of St Bernadette and the 18 apparitions, saying the backstory stands up well. “It is impressive in the sense that you had an uneducated girl who was able to deliver quite complex messages that she could not have known back to senior clerics,” Moran says.

He describes himself as an ordinary weekly Mass-going Catholic – “I was always religious, but no more than the next person” – who has kept faith in difficult times for the church.

“Certainly awful things happened in the Catholic Church, and efforts now are being made to make reparation for that,” Moran says. “But if you strip Christianity back to its roots, if you go back to God is good, God is love and loving your neighbour, then, done right, there is nothing bad about Catholicism, Christianity or religion.”

For some people faith and science just can’t sit side by side, but Moran disagrees. “Faith and science complement each other.

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