Doctor of miracles
Pawel Zuchniewicz talks to Dr. Patrick Theillier
Lourdes is the shrine, located in the French Pyrenees, famous for numerous healings and conversions. At the same time this is the place of the last trip of John Paul II. The Holy Father's visit lasted two days: 14 and 15 August 2004.
'Kneeling here, before the grotto of Massabielle, I feel deeply that I have reached the goal of my pilgrimage', the Holy Father said after his arrival at the shrine. Then he lit a candle and drank water from the spring, which appeared one hundred and forty-six years ago.
On 11 February 1858 Mary appeared to fourteen-ear-old Bernadette Soubirous. There were more apparitions. On 25 February the White Lady showed the girl where to move away the soil so that water could gush. Bernadette heard the command, 'Drink of the spring and wash yourself in it'. The Church approved the visions four years later. Lourdes has become a pilgrims' place (especially the sick) and 11 February was proclaimed the World Day of the Sick by the Pope from Poland. 'Lourdes, which John Paul II called 'sanctuary of human suffering' hosted the Pope on Saturday, a sick person among the sick, and sometimes even very ailing', Radio France Internationale reported on 14 August 2004. One of the eye witnesses of that pilgrimage was doctor Patrick Theillier. He is the 12th head of the Medical Bureau of Our Lady of Lourdes since the time the office was called into being. That's why we can call Patrick Theillier a doctor of miracles.
After over one year after the visit of John Paul II to Lourdes and half a year after his death I talk to Dr. Patrick Theillier about miracles, the Pope and his relationships with this shrine.
- It was a very important place for him and the best evidence is the fact that he wanted to come here before his death, the doctor says. - I remember when he came out of his papamobile and knelt on the prie-dieu. Then he was about to fall. Some thought it was because he was so weak but he was deeply moved.
- Then John Paul II met numerous sick people...
- I can say that just after the departure of the Holy Father a woman who was cured came to the Medical Bureau. She comes from Marseilles, she is married and has two children. Twenty years earlier he had a serious car accident. Her back was injured. From that time she wore a corset and she had serious migraine attacks almost every second day. Before going to bed she had to take pain-killing pills and every night she had to place the pillow in such a way as to minimalise the ailment. In August she came to Lourdes. And when she heard the Pope saying 'I bless you', she felt that her disease disappeared. That evening she fell asleep without any pills and fixing the pillow for the first time within twenty years. On 17 August, two days after the Holy Father's departure, she came to us and reported of her healing. I have been in touch with her. A year passed from that event and she has been completely healthy. Many things have changed in her life. She cares for the sick in hospitals in her home town. She also helps the sick in their pilgrimages to Lourdes.
- What does a miracle depend on?
- In all cases the initiative comes from God. It does not result from the holiness of the person who experiences a miracle. Such a person is surprised. He/she does not have to be a believer or a Catholic. Many atheists as well as Muslims have been healed in Lourdes. What counts is the faith of those gathered in this unique place. Everything depends on prayer, on active love of people who help others in the shrine.
- You said about the gathering of believers in the shrine. John Paul II often visited shrines but he also appeared in the places that were not connected with religious tradition. And there he gathered large crowds. Is this a good occasion for a miracle to happen?
- Healings can happen everywhere where 'two or three gather in the name of Jesus'.
- How would you define a miracle?
- It is an event related to God who wants good for people. We commonly think that a miracle is something that is impossible and yet it happens. First of all it is a sign from God who acts among us. A physical healing is a tangible fact but it is only a part of the phenomenon which we call miracle. The second part is the significance we attach to it. In the dictionary 'Le Petit Robert' we read that 'miracle is an extraordinary fact in which we recognise the kind intervention of God and we attach spiritual meaning to it'.
- What is then the spiritual meaning of miracle?
- The reality of miracle depends first of all on our understanding of God's action in the universe. As we know there are people who question the existence of God (atheists) or people who do not ask the question if God exists (agnostics). One can believe that God exists and at the same time one can be convinced that God is completely outside our world. In our cultural sphere people often treat God as a great clockmaker who set the mechanism of the world once and switched himself off. But Christianity claims something different. Man is loved by God who will do anything to show us his love, especially through signs. For example, miracles are such signs.
We often do not notice them because we believe - especially in our materially developed civilisation - that everything depends on what we have at our disposal: our strength, financial resources, material means. Thus we have lost the sense of sacrum which for instance the people of Africa have. When I meet them at various conferences they tell me there are many miracles among them. They say that they do not even mention them since they continuously have them. 'We have not got medicines that the West has so we pray over the sick and they are cured'.
- How can we define that some event is a miracle and another is not?
- Obviously, it is very difficult to evaluate the testimony of some sick who claims that he has been cured. I met a lot of such people. One needs a lot of discernment. Since you can see this person from outside and such an event concerns the inside. Even healings - physical miracles - are the expressions of something that has happened in the depth of human being. People experience a strong action of God. It is as if God passed through man. I personally believe that miraculous healings are personal encounters of people with Jesus who saves them. Such encounters can be very simple and do not have to involve extraordinary phenomena. However, it can happen that the power is revealed internally and externally, and then we can see it.
It is worth noticing that there are ordinary and extraordinary miracles. The fact that God maintains the world is a miracle, that the sun rises every day at a predicted hour is a miracle, and the fact that we are alive is a miracle, too. We do not see these miracles because we have got used to them. There are also extraordinary miracles, which make, so to say, more noise. And in this case it is a sign from God.
- Why does God use them?
- Since he wants us to be free and to have a choice. He gives signs but he does not force us to do anything. A miracle does not force anybody to believe. But it can help those who are opened to it. A sign is an indicator directed to our freedom: we can take it into account but we can reject it as well. We are to decide if we notice a miracle or not.
- Is faith in miracles not in some way faith in magic?
- These are two different things. The one who refers to magic wants to be a master; he demands concrete things and in order to get them he wants to use the powers that do not come from the natural world. A miracle in Christianity is something opposite. We receive it gratis, without our merits. It is the pride of man that dominates in magic, the pride that man uses. In a miracle the condition is the humility of the one who receives the sign.
- Do the miracles, which you call signs, related to John Paul II, authenticate his sainthood?
- One of the features of saints who are still on the earth is that they change the nature. It can be well illustrated by the story of St Francis who tamed the wolf from Gubbio. We also feel that being close to the person who is full of God we are touched, changed in some way. We can say that the world, even the nature, around a saint is moved by his/her holiness. This is the sense of the call to holiness - through the holiness of every person the world is changed. We can say that holiness goes beyond the limits set by the matter and its laws, which is sometimes revealed in various extraordinary experiences.
- It happens that concrete people believe in the power of the Pope's prayer and attach key meaning to it but they also use ordinary medical help. Someone had a cancer, met the Pope, asked him for prayer and then the person was operated on and was cured: is it a miracle or not?
- Medicine and miracles are not in opposition. God uses various means. It can use the intercession of a holy person but he can act through ordinary human means. One should not juxtapose these things.
- What do you think the effectiveness of John Paul II depends on?
- Saints have various gifts called charisms. In Greek 'charism' means 'grace', i.e. the gift of the Holy Spirit to build up the community of believers. There are people who have been given the charism of healing. It is not a method or technique but it is a gift. I do not personally think that John Paul II had the charism of healing. But undoubtedly, he had the gift of prayer, intercession and mediation.