Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
In 1858 a simple peasant girl, 14-year-old, named Bernadette Soubirous, living in the small village of Lourdes in southwestern France, announced that she had seen an apparition, a supernatural appearance of mother Mary. A ‘lady’ dressed in white that had appeared to her and told her she wanted to convey important spiritual messages to the community. First chastised for telling tales, then examined by a medical doctor for signs of delusion or hysteria, Bernadette was eventually redeemed in the eyes of the authorities when the apparition provided various signs through the child that she was in fact the Virgin Mary, “the Immaculate Conception.” The apparition then led the child to a previously unknown spring of fresh water in the back of the shrine (grotto); and almost immediately, local people began to report healings after contact with the water.
The visions were declared authentic by Pope Pius IX in 1862. In 1876 the Papacy officially recognized Lourdes as a holy place of healing and pilgrimage.
The underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes has since become a major pilgrimage center. More than 5,000,000 pilgrims, many of them sick or disabled, visit the site annually.
Miracles began to happen soon after the discovery of the fresh water spring. But, it would not do for any number of ordinary people to begin deciding for themselves whether or not they were recipients of a miracle healing. Miracles were the sort of things that needed to be determined by experts, and so in the course of recognizing Lourdes as a healing shrine, the Church authorities also undertook to set up a Medical Bureau-a commission of Catholic doctors-whose job it was to act as gatekeepers, to determine which of the many healings at Lourdes really met the stringent criteria for what was called ‘medical inexplicability.’ So stringent were the criteria set down that to this day, out of thousands of cases of claimed miracle healings at Lourdes, only sixty-six have been recognized by the Church as true ‘signs of God.’ The most recent was ratified in February 1999: a case of multiple sclerosis suffered by a middle-aged Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Bely.
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