The “useless” doctor of Lourdes

“There is no other place in the Catholic world with so much suffering, and yet with so much joy, as Lourdes,” says Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis.

(Left) Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis gives a lecture to the author's pilgrimage group during a July 2017 visit to Lourdes. (Right) Caregivers push pilgrims in wheelchairs in 2014 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

With humility and good humor, Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis—a practicing physician for more than 30 years—refers to himself as a “useless” doctor. Why would that be? Because in 2009, he was appointed by the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes to be the 15th Médecin Permanent—that is, the president—of the Bureau des Constatations Médicales de Lourdes, or the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. This office was founded in 1883 to record, study, and judge the hundreds of cures reported by pilgrims who came to Lourdes to wash in the waters of the spring revealed by the Mother of God in her apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous. Since then, 7,000 cases of unexplained cures from severe medical conditions have been recorded. A total of 69 of them investigated by the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations have been declared miracles by Church authorities, the latest of which occurred in 2013. And so, Alessandro de Franciscis jokingly refers to himself as a “useless” doctor, as his primary duty is to evaluate patients who are already cured!

In 1858 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, in the small town of Lourdes, located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Between February 11 and July 16 of that year, Our Lady appeared to Bernadette 18 times at the Grotto of Massabielle along the Gave de Pau river. Dressed in white with a blue sash, Our Lady called for penance and prayer (especially the Rosary) to be offered for the conversion of sinners and in reparation to God. Furthermore, she requested the construction of a chapel on the site of her apparitions. She also made a profound self-revelation identifying herself as the “Immaculate Conception,” which served to reinforce this dogmatic teaching on Our Lady’s sinlessness and fullness of grace proclaimed four years earlier by Pope Blessed Pius IX. In the ninth apparition, which occurred on February 25, Our Lady directed Bernadette to uncover a miraculous spring, telling her to drink and wash from its waters. Bernadette was observed by the crowds stooping over the muddied ground within the grotto and then scraping at it until a little water appeared. She drank from it, muddying her face to the point that she appeared to have gone mad. Bernadette was led away and most in the crowd concluded the spectacle had gone too far. Yet, that afternoon people returning to the grotto discovered that a spring had emerged from the hole Bernadette had dug. Out of devotion, they filled bottles with the water and took them home. This spring would eventually produce clear, flowing water which flows to this day and has resulted in thousands of miracles of healing since it was uncovered.

The very first one occurred only four days after the spring came into existence, on March 1, 1858. The beneficiary was a 39-year-old woman named Catherine Latapie who lived in in the town of Loubajac, a few miles from Lourdes. She had injured her right hand after a fall from a tree 18 months prior to the apparitions. The accident left the last two fingers of her right hand in paralysis which were held in palmar flexion, that is, in a severely bent position facing inwards toward the palm of the hand. Catherine Latapie was not a practicing Catholic and ignored the fervor surrounding reports of Bernadette’s visions in the neighboring town of Lourdes. Yet one night, in the middle of her sleep, she was moved by a sudden impulse. She rose at 3:00 in the morning, woke her young children, and set off for Lourdes by foot, even though she was nearing the end of a pregnancy. Arriving at dawn, she met Bernadette, went to the grotto, and knelt down to pray. Then, with all simplicity, she bathed her hand in the little hollow which had already collected water from the spring, and her fingers immediately returned to normal. They had regained movement and she was able to extend them with the same facility as she could before the accident. She returned home with haste to share the news of her cure, and later that same day gave birth to her third child, who would later become a priest.

This was the first cure attributed to the spring. Many others would soon follow. The bishop of the local diocese of Tarbes, Bertrand-Sévère Laurence, had the responsibility of investigating the veracity of all of these reports in addition to the apparitions themselves. He completed this process on January 18, 1862, publishing a decree affirming the reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary as worthy of belief based upon the reliability and upstanding character of the seer, Bernadette, as well as the spiritual fruits and bodily cures received by pilgrims to the grotto. On that same day, the bishop declared by decree that seven cures among hundreds examined by appointed doctors were miraculous.

Pilgrims continued to come in large numbers to the grotto of Massabielle to honor the Mother of God and to seek spiritual and physical healing. So many claimed to have been cured that the Church intervened to avoid the hysteria of superstition and to protect the authentic message conveyed by the Mother of God to the world at Lourdes. The episcopal commission established to investigate alleged cures was soon superseded in 1883 when the rector of the sanctuary called upon Dr. Georges-Fernand Dunot de Saint-Maclou to establish the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations, to provide more rigorous medical analysis of the alleged cures. The goal of this organization was to have no one leave Lourdes claiming a “cure” without submitting his story to a rigorous and collegiate medical assessment. In 1954 a sort of “second instance” committee was established to confirm the work of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. This is the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which has the task of assessing and certifying that the course of a cure declared “unexplained” by the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations is indeed “unexplained” on the basis of current medical knowledge. The International Medical Committee of Lourdes has about 30 members. At the moment, it is jointly presided over by the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Nicolas Brouwet, and its secretary, Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, who is also the president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations.

The International Medical Committee of Lourdes can only pronounce a cure to be “medically inexplicable.” If the committee comes to that conclusion, the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes forwards the findings to the bishop of the diocese where the cured individual lives. That bishop must make the determination on behalf of the Church as to whether the given case is miraculous. In this we can see the Church’s integrity in applying rigorous standards to affirming miracles—of the 7,000 cases of unexplained cures that have been recorded at Lourdes, only 69 have been formally declared by the Church to be miraculous.

The most recent judgment of the Church declaring a cure at Lourdes to be miraculous came from Bishop Giovanni Giudici of Pavia, Italy in 2013. A member of his diocese, Danila Castelli, began suffering from severe blood pressure problems in 1980 at the age of 34, which put her at great risk of fatal stroke or heart failure. Danila’s ailments continued for years with no test able to determine the cause of the high blood pressure. She endured multiple surgeries, none of which succeeded in alleviating her condition. In 1989, as her condition deteriorated, Danila’s husband, a doctor himself, made plans to bring her to the Mayo Clinic in the United States. Just before their planned departure, she insisted instead on going to Lourdes.

Danila bathed in the waters of the spring and immediately reported a feeling of relief from all bodily ailments. Her husband, who had thought their trip to Lourdes absurd, told her as she exited the baths, “You were right to come here. I know now that everything is behind us.”

Four months later, Danila having been restored to perfect health, the couple returned to report Danila’s instantaneous cure to the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. She was evaluated and it was determined that her blood pressure was at a normal level. She returned to Lourdes for five more meetings with this office in 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2010 to ensure her cure was a lasting condition. Indeed it was, and the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations certified Danila had been cured in a complete and lasting way from the date of her pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1989. In 2011, the International Medical Committee of Lourdes certified the findings of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations that Danila’s cure remains unexplained according to current medical knowledge. The bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes forwarded these findings to the bishop of the diocese in which Danila lives, Bishop Giovanni Giudici of Pavia, Italy, who accepted these findings of the medical experts and declared the case miraculous.

Danila Castelli has since insisted two miracles came from her bathing in the waters of Lourdes—her cure and the restoration of her husband’s faith. They would both return frequently as pilgrims to Lourdes and would work as volunteers assisting the sick until Danila’s death last year.

It may seem surprising that out of 7,000 cases recorded over the past 150 years by the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations, only 69 have been formally recognized as miraculous by the Church. This is undoubtedly because of the strict criteria applied to all the cases put forward. On a recent pilgrimage to Lourdes, I was able to meet with Dr. De Franciscis to discuss his important and most interesting work.

Father Seán Connolly, for CWR: Could you please describe your work here in Lourdes?

Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis: For the past eight years I have been the residing physician of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations. I was appointed to this position in 2009 by Bishop Jacques Perrier, who was then the bishop of the Diocese of Tarbes and Lourdes, in which this sanctuary is located, and I have served in this position since. Being the residing or permanent physician, I am therefore the chairperson of the meetings that are convoked collegially to discuss a case of an alleged cure. I occupy an office in the sanctuary and am the first to receive a declaration of an alleged cure, which I am tasked with beginning a critical examination of. If the case appears to be serious, I convoke a meeting of doctors to examine the case further with me. The doctors convoked for these meetings are those who happen to be present in Lourdes at the time the alleged cure is claimed. Any doctors present can participate in the examinations regardless of their religious belief. These are doctors who visit Lourdes with an interest in assisting the sick at the shrine and investigating alleged cures. When they arrive they make themselves known to this office by registering. This tradition of visiting physicians registering upon their arrival in Lourdes is the oldest uninterrupted tradition of the sanctuary, dating from 1883. Last year alone, 4,500 medical professionals registered.

In addition to my being the resident physician at the sanctuary and president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations, I am also as a result, the president of an organization created in 1928 called the International Lourdes Medical Association. The purpose of this association is to maintain contact with the many medical professionals from all parts of the world wishing to maintain a lasting relationship with our office after their visit to Lourdes. This association currently numbers 12,500 members who are regular subscribers to our international bulletin, which has been published quarterly for 90 years. A particularly important aspect of this association is to verify and make known the qualifications of all of the medical professionals who register with our office upon their arrival in Lourdes.

And finally, I serve as the secretary of the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which was founded in 1954 because the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes at the time desired the cures declared by the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations to be unexplained on the basis of current medical knowledge to be submitted to a second verification by an international panel of university professors, scientists, and scholars in different disciplines of medicine. This medical committee is by appointment and meets once a year to study the unexplained cases that have come forth over the past year. This committee is chaired by the bishop of the Diocese of Tarbes and Lourdes and I serve as the general secretary. In that capacity I prepare the agenda of our annual meetings.

CWR: You are the first non-Frenchman to hold the important position of being the resident physician at the Lourdes sanctuary. How did you come to the attention of the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes to be appointed?

De Franciscis: My appointment was a shock and still is. Perhaps we should ask Bishop Perrier who appointed me.

In 1973 I came to Lourdes for the first time as a volunteer when I was still in high school. I fell in love with Lourdes, as millions have. I decided at that time that I both wanted to return and to be a physician to help those who were sick. I was so inspired by their treatment here at Lourdes I wanted to make it my life’s work. After high school I became a medical student and kept returning to Lourdes year after year. I remember vividly while still in medical school a very painful and dramatic experience at the baths where pilgrims, especially those who are sick, go to wash in the spring. I was working in the baths with sick children and had an interior crisis, struggling with the question, “If God exists, how can he permit such suffering?” I saw a number of handicapped, deformed, and terribly sick children, which disturbed me very much. I eventually did overcome the crisis and decided to direct my medical studies to pediatrics so I could be of help to suffering children.

I have been coming to Lourdes every year since and have made my best friends here.

In 2008 while I was here on a pilgrimage, as I did every year, I held a seat in the Italian Parliament and was a governor of a local province in Italy. While in Lourdes that year I asked the Blessed Mother to indicate to me the next road to take in my life, as I was growing tired with life in politics. One month after my return home from that pilgrimage I received a letter from the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, who I had never met, informing me that the current president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations was retiring and that he desired me to succeed him as I have the necessary qualifications and a familiarity with the shrine.

I was shocked that I could be asked without the bishop knowing me! At the time I was a clinical lecturer at the University of Naples and had two more years left in my term of elected office, and I did not think I could make such a drastic change of course in my life. Within 10 days of receiving that letter I made the most unusual pilgrimage to Lourdes in my life to meet with the bishop. I refused the appointment on account of these practical circumstances of my life. But as soon as I returned home to Naples I realized that I made a big mistake. I was in love with Lourdes—only a month before I asked Our Lady to guide me in a new direction for my life, and here she very clearly guided the bishop in asking me to accept this position. And in my nearsightedness I refused! Furthermore, in speaking to my spiritual director, it became clear to me that this was a vocation from God. My whole life I made pilgrimages to Lourdes. It was there that Our Lady’s intercession made clear my calling to be a doctor, and this spiritual director of mine helped me to discern that this was a vocation.

In September of 2008 Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. I followed the visit closely and decided to call Bishop Perrier to congratulate him on its success. He was uninterested in my thoughts about the papal visit and asked with enthusiasm if I would reconsider my refusal of his offer. This time, I accepted with equal enthusiasm. And here I am since my appointment became official on April 1, 2009—a great April Fool’s joke played on me by Our Lady!

CWR: What are the guiding principles of your office in investigating alleged cures?

De Franciscis: The mission given to the founder of this office, Dr. Georges-Fernand Dunot de Saint-Maclou, was to have no one leave Lourdes claiming a “cure” without submitting his story to a rigorous and collegiate medical assessment. We use medical and scientific criteria to determine if someone has truly been cured or not. This office works just as it did, more or less, 100 years ago. I am the residing physician. A pilgrim will knock at my door if he feels or believes that he has been cured (the last knock at my door came this morning, in fact) and as a doctor—though I make fun of myself, claiming I am a useless doctor because I see only those who are already cured—I make a medical judgment. I remain a physician. I am able to tell if a case is serious, that is, if it is perhaps medically inexplicable. Sometimes I make a judgement that a claim is worth studying further, but most of the time I dismiss the claimant with kindness. Presently, we average 30 to 40 declarations a year that I determine are worth examining further.

In our further examinations we use criteria established by Pope Benedict XIV. That is why you can see his portrait here in my office. His brilliant work written while still a cardinal, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione, reviews and clarifies the Church’s theory and practice in making saints and presents systematically the theological concepts of martyrdom, [heroism] of virtues, the virtues themselves, and miracles. We use his same criteria, which is both rigorous and rational, for verifying supposed miracles. According to this criteria, which we use when judging an alleged cure, there are three factors that must be considered. The first is the ailment: it must be a known condition in the medical community and must be a severe prognosis. The second factor is the alleged cure itself, which has four components: it must be an unexpected cure, an instantaneous cure, a complete cure, and a cure which lasts forever. The third and final factor is that the cure must be inexplicable according to current medical knowledge.

If the alleged cure meets these three criteria in our examinations, this office submits its findings to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes, which evaluates our work and votes on whether they deem the case inexplicable. If this committee determines that this alleged cure has no explanation according to current medical science, I have the privilege in my capacity as the resident physician of the sanctuary to present our completed study to the bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, who in turn forwards the completed file to the bishop of the cured person’s diocese. That bishop will then make the determination to recognize the cure canonically as miraculous on behalf of the Church. It is the prerogative of the ordinary of the cured person to make the determination on behalf of the Church that an alleged cure is a miracle, that is, a sign worked by God through the intercession of Our Lady of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

On the day the apparitions at Lourdes were canonically recognized as worthy of belief, the bishop affirmed seven cures as miraculous on the counsel of a single physician assigned at the time. At the 50th anniversary of the apparitions at Lourdes, to glorify God and his Mother on this anniversary, 33 more cures were declared miraculous based upon the findings of this office alone. Since then, 29 other cures have been declared miraculous through this current process of recognition I have just outlined.

CWR: Is there a danger of falling into superstition when it comes to devotion to Lourdes water?

De Franciscis: I declare myself not competent to speak about matters of superstition. I am a physician. I will leave it to the ministers of the Church to guide the faithful on matters of superstition. What I will say however, is this: there must be a reason why the Blessed Mother identified a new, as yet undiscovered spring to Bernadette. There must be a reason that in all times in the history of salvation there is a relation between natural elements and [the] supernatural. The natural element of water is used for baptism, for instance. I think the popular piety and devotion to the water of Lourdes is well founded in the Christian tradition and must be respected. But we must help our faithful to make proper distinctions. St. Bernadette herself said it was not the use of water in itself that brought healing, but primarily faith. This is clearly what we see in the gospels as well. Most of the cures the Lord Jesus and his Apostles administer are related to an act of faith.

CWR: What is the most significant message Our Lady gave at Lourdes?

De Franciscis: What is particular about Our Lady’s appearance at Lourdes is that this is a smiling Mother. There is a great joy given at Lourdes. There is no other place of pilgrimage in the Catholic world with so much suffering in terms of sickness, handicaps, malformations, and so on, yet with so much smiling, singing, and joy as at Lourdes. The big liturgies and daily processions are signs of joy and our communion as Catholics, as disciples of Jesus and common sons and daughters of his Mother. It is truly a place of joy. It is a joy that captured my heart all those years back when I was a young high school student and has remained with me all of these years till this very day.

About Father Seán Connolly 4 Articles

Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He currently serves as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady Parish in Tuckahoe, New York.

3 Comments

  1. A beautiful story about a favorite place. Fr Connolly has my thanks for the interview and asking pertinent questions. The water. Dr De Franciscis a man of faith and compassion rightly points to faith rather than the water. Although the water may in instances be an instrument of belief for non believers. De Franciscis also emphasizes the great sense of joy among the pilgrims. That is so impressive at Lourdes. It is I believe a spiritually inspired joy given to the suffering, the helpers by Mary. Today Sep 8 the Feast of her birth, we honor she who brought the source of spiritual joy into the world for us. Mary I believe shares that faculty with her Son. It dispels Darkness when it seems overwhelming, reminding us within of what it is we hope for.

  2. I have had the privilege of working as a volunteer in Lourdes four times, and I can attest to the good doctor’s claim that Lourdes is a place of joy despite the presence of so many sick people. Part of my volunteer work was doing crowd control during the Eucharistic and rosary processions. Two memorable sights. A teenage boy on a gurney, with no arms and no legs but with such a big contagious smile on his face. An elderly woman on a wheelchair, being pushed by a caregiver, throwing kisses at us volunteers. Where does this joy come from but from the smiling Lady in white, whose love radiates all over the place. I will be 76 in a few days, and I have some health issues, but I am considering serving Our Lady as a volunteer one more time, perhaps for the last time.

  3. Just as the scribes and pharisees attributed the cures that Jesus performed to diabolical forces, people of our own times just as blindly and stubbornly attribute these cures to superstition or unknown natural causes. The criteria they require for proof would make it impossible for any court of law in the world to function since ultimately nothing could be “proven” beyond a reasonable doubt.

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  3. Prado Nuevo | Era diputado y gobernador pero dejó todo por Lourdes y ahora se encarga de investigar las curaciones

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