Lourdes calls cure

The Roman Catholic shrine at Lourdes has announced the "remarkable healing" of a French invalid, avoiding the traditional term "miracle" because its doctors increasingly shy away from calling an illness incurable.

The case of Serge Francois, 56, whose left leg was mostly paralysed for years, was the first healing announced since the Church eased some rules in 2006 for declaring that a person was healed thanks to visiting the site.

The Catholic Church teaches that God sometimes performs miracles, including cures that doctors can't explain. Sceptics reject this as unscientific and explain sudden recoveries as psychological phenomena or the delayed result of treatment.

Character of the healing

"In the name of the Church, I publicly recognise the 'remarkable' character of the healing from which Serge Francois benefited at Lourdes on April 12, 2002," said Bishop Emmanuel Delmas of Angers in western France, where Francois lives.

Delmas, who earned a medical degree before entering the priesthood, said the bureau of medical experts at Lourdes had concluded the recovery was "sudden, complete, unrelated to any particular therapy and durable.."

The healing could be considered "as a personal gift of God for this man, as an event of grace, as a sign of Christ the Saviour," he said, avoiding the word "miracle".

Reluctant doctors

A local bishop has the authority to interpret the bureau's findings as a miracle. Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to a peasant girl in 1858, is Catholicism's most popular miracle shrine with six million pilgrims annually.

"Doctors today hesitate to use the adjective 'inexplicable,' or at least qualify it by adding 'according to the current state of scientific knowledge,'" Lourdes Bishop Jacques Perrier said in a statement to explain the new wording.

"They consider this reserve indispensable so they are not disqualified by their colleagues who refuse to consider things may be inexplicable," he said.

Doctors declined

The Church eased the Lourdes rules five years ago because the 20-member medical bureau, made up of Catholic and agnostic doctors, increasingly declined to draw conclusions for cases they agreed were instances of unexplained healing.

About 7,000 sufferers have claimed to have been cured at Lourdes since the medical bureau began keeping records in 1883, but only 67 were declared to be miracles.

When the new rules were introduced, Perrier said, the Church opted for them to confirm proven recoveries as authentic healings, even if the doctors no longer called them miracles.

In interviews about his healing, Francois has said he felt a sharp pain after touching water from the Lourdes spring during a pilgrimage in 2002 and thought he would die. Minutes later, he said, his left leg felt warm and he could use it again.

He reported it to the medical bureau on a visit in 2003 and the bureau declared it inexplicable after five years of study.(Reuters Health/ March 2011)

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