Genuine or not?

Everyone has probably already heard of the miraculous cures which have been occurring in Lourdes since 1858 onwards. As amazing as it may seem, Lourdes was not of much importance on the religious map of the world, not to mention on the tourist one, before all these talks about the Marian apparitions and the cures. These phenomena, as it were, gave rise to some of the most opposite attitudes. Believers and people with health complaints do go there in order to pray and to heal their conditions regardless of the lack of scientific medical grounds for their actions. On the other hand, skeptics can only mock this kind of blind faith which disregards all reasonable arguments, getting as far as to speak about the so-called Lourdes effect (a concept easily applicable to all cases in which reason is abandoned in favor of unquestioned faith in constructing an attitude towards apparently inexplicable phenomena).

All in all, the entire talk about the miraculous cures in Lourdes comes down to one question: are they real or not? In other words, can one heal themselves beyond the possibility of science and medicine to explain the cause or their cure? Undeniably, those 67 people who have indeed cured beyond scientific explanations (though other thousands of cases have been documented, but with medical accounts) do believe miraculous cures happen. Others… don’t, or at least allow for all sorts of theories that are yet to be discovered. Faith, they might say, is anything but a medical or healing factor.

Bernadette Soubirous and the Marian apparitions

The story of Lourdes as we know it today – a major pilgrimage and religious tourist destination – began only in 1858, the year when the 14 years old Bernadette Soubirous witnessed the apparitions of Virgin Mary. As a result of her visions (ascertained as such by the Catholic Church), Bernadette Soubirous was sanctified subsequently to her death. The fact that her body was deemed incorrupt by the Catholic Church also worked as a closer to Bernadette’s sanctification (though, roughly speaking, this premise is not a necessary substantiation of sanctity).

The apparitions no one even doubts today (except for the convinced skeptics) occurred in the Grotto of Massabielle. According to Bernadette’s accounts, it was the Virgin Mary who appeared to her, dressed in a white robe and a blue sash, holding, at the same time, a rosary in her hands. The bottom line is the message transmitted by Virgin Mary to little Bernadette comes down to the cryptic words “I am the immaculate conception” and to the indication of the place where the healing water spring was to be found, should Bernadette follow the advice of the Virgin. As anyone can imagine, Bernadette had to put up with a not so friendly attitude from her relatives, at the beginning, though the immediately occurring cures worked, eventually, as substantiation for her accounts.

The Grotto of Massabielle and the healing water

The Grotto of Massabielle is the very place where the 18 Marian apparitions occurred in 1858. The cave lies nearby the Gave River, and it is the very core of the religious life and pilgrimage gatherings in Lourdes. In fact, it is the place where the entire story begins. As from 1864 (6 years after the apparitions), a statue rendering the Our Lady of Lourdes has been installed in front of the cave. According to Bernadette, the depiction of Virgin Mary as rendered by the statue does not correspond to her image as seen at the moment of the apparitions. Bernadette, in fact, was greatly disappointed with the embodiment, though nowadays this detail is of no great significance. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Basilica of the Rosary have been built in reference to the apparitions, each of them being, one might say, named after the details pegging out the statute and the accounts of Bernadette: the words of Virgin Mary (I am the immaculate conception) and the rosary held in her hands.

The grotto is highly visited by people with deeps religious veneration and insights, such that moments when no one is in or around the cave are scarce. However, there are people who simply visit the Grotto of Massabielle for healing purposes chiefly, though the original warning of Bernadette, according to which cure can only rely on faith, should strongly be considered. It is the water streaming from the cave that pushes everyone to visit the place, a water which, by all chemical analyses, is nothing but ordinary. This means the chemical structure and composition of the water can not account for the alleged cures. Nowadays, the water is conveniently directed in view of an easier access for whoever wants to drink or collect it. It is distributed freely, which is a further incentive for visiting the cave. In addition, the cave hosts 17 baths (pools) (6 for men, 11 for women) in which pilgrims can immerse in view of alleviating or healing their conditions.

The miraculous healing and the Medical Bureau

The first case of miraculous healing took place in 1858. Millions of people go to Lourdes each year in the hope of healing their diseases, but there are only 67 cases deemed miraculous by the Catholic Church and impossible to explain by scientific means by modern medicine. Is that a closer for planning a stay in Lourdes, mostly if rather pragmatic than religious reasons push tourists to visit the town? Some tend to believe hope is always an incentive and a constructive force. Others tend to rely on statistics, data and facts and to dismiss the 67 cases as yet unresolved scientific mysteries. Beyond all these disputes, it must be stated the Catholic Church does not have a very strongly delineated position in respect to the curative potency of the water in the Grotto of Massabielle, and does not officially encourage medical tourism.

The Medical Bureau

Furthermore, in order to shatter all skepticism in relation to the cases ascertained as miraculous, the Church has requested the establishment of a Medical Bureau able to deal with the healing cases. The Bureau is completely independent from the supervision of the Church, and it offers information and documentation to whoever wants to access them (that is, to all specialized medical doctors) in order to make their own analysis and construct their own theories. Unexplainable cases range from healed paralysis, blindness, tuberculosis, ulcer, heart diseases, to healed abscesses, arthritis, and gastroenteritis, for instance.

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