LOURDES, France (OSV News) -- The "secret of Lourdes is the Eucharist," the renowned shrine's chief medical officer told OSV News.
"The fabulous part of Lourdes is that we are invited, convened (here) by our Blessed Mother, but we end up discovering and possibly making friends with Jesus Christ, who is very present in Lourdes," said Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, president of the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations (Bureau des Constatations Médicales), a post he has held since 2009.
Each year, some 3 million pilgrims -- many with terminal medical conditions -- visit the shrine in southwestern France, site of 18 Marian apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous, who was a young teenager in poverty and could neither read nor write at the time.
During the course of the visions, which took place between Feb. 11 and July 16, 1858, in a Lourdes grotto, Mary identified herself as the Immaculate Conception, a dogma that had been proclaimed just four years earlier by Pope Pius IX. She also directed St. Bernadette to an underground spring at the grotto, the waters of which have prompted miraculous cures in some.
Pope Pius IX declared the apparitions authentic in 1862. St. Bernadette, wishing to avoid further public attention, joined the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She died in 1879 at the age of 35 and was canonized in 1933.
Both the saint and the shrine have been the focus of numerous films, but the 2019 documentary Lourdes -- directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, and set to debut in the U.S. theaters Feb. 8-9 -- takes a closer look at some of those who journey to the shrine seeking relief.
De Franciscis, who appears in the U.S. release's bonus content, told OSV News that a miraculous cure -- only 70 of which have been officially recognized at the shrine -- is "a church judgment."
A medical assessment, in contrast, would simply state the phenomenon as "an unexplained cure according to medical knowledge," said the Italian-born pediatric specialist and epidemiologist, who is also a devout Catholic.
A team of doctors collaborates with de Franciscis to rigorously investigate claims of the miraculous at Lourdes, relying on a process and a rubric that blend historical precedent and cutting-edge medical knowledge.
Once a pilgrim brings an alleged cure to his attention, de Franciscis conducts a preliminary review, administering tests and discussing the case with colleagues and experts who are affiliated with his office, which was established in 1883.
If it merits further scrutiny, the claim is placed before the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (or "CMIL," as it is abbreviated in French), which was created in 1954 and has about 30 members. As president of the shrine's medical office, de Franciscis is also the committee's secretary, with the bishop of Tarbes-et-Lourdes (now Bishop Jean-Marc Micas) jointly presiding -- though without a vote -- in his role as custodian of the shrine.
De Franciscis said that at every stage the investigation is governed by seven criteria, which were developed by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV) in his 18th-century work "On the Beatification of the Servants of God and the Canonization of the Blessed," and which are still used by the Holy See for canonization causes.
The first task is to establish a correct diagnosis, one that, as part of the second criteria, must have a severe prognosis, he said.
Four criteria demand that a cure be sudden and unexpected, complete, instantaneous and lasting, said de Franciscis.
Finally, the cure must have "no known possible explanation," and "then it's all about the church," he said.
If a case clears all seven hurdles, the bishop notifies the pilgrim's diocesan bishop, who can arrive at his own judgment on the matter, said de Franciscis, who has seen three cases since 2009 become Lourdes' 68th, 69th and 70th official miracles.
Faith and medicine "find a place in Lourdes in which there is a very fruitful dialogue," but the true transformations that take place among pilgrims are more profound, he said -- as he himself knows firsthand.
"Lourdes has had a very great impact, not only for my faith but my entire life," said de Franciscis, who first visited as a teen and was "very impressed" with the opportunity to assist those with sickness and disabilities.
Other medical professionals who have traveled to Lourdes have been similarly touched, he said.
Among the examples he cited were an "absolutely non-practicing Christian" who left military service, reconnected with his faith and became a nurse; a pharmacologist whose time in Lourdes inspired him to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain; and a proudly agnostic medical officer who annually travels to Lourdes "to find (his) motivation for being a doctor."
Lourdes is "a place of joy" in which pilgrims feel welcome, no matter their condition, said de Franciscis -- and the shrine's daily processions, Masses and times of Eucharistic adoration are the reason, he added.
With millions encountering Christ in the Eucharist at Lourdes, "perhaps (even) only just a few minutes," the reason for Mary's apparitions become clear, said de Franciscis.
"I believe there is the True Presence of Jesus, true man and true God, the real physical Presence of Jesus in that piece of bread," he said. "This is a miracle that we believe in the Catholic Church. I think this is the essence of the reason why she appeared. It's to encourage us, as a mother would do with her children, to go back to Jesus, to become friends with Jesus her Son."