When Michael Moran first went to Lourdes with his father as a child, he was mesmerised by the throngs of people who came to pray at the shrine. More than 200m have done so since Bernadette Soubirous first told of seeing the Virgin Mary in the cleft of a rock in 1858.
While intrigued by tales of cures, these days the Belfast doctor finds that the real miracle of Lourdes lies in the solace it brings to those with serious illness and its capacity to change the lives and perspectives of the able-bodied.
“Being in Lourdes takes you out of your busy life with all its problems and stresses,” he says. “All the little things that might bother you are forgotten there and you just concentrate on the task at hand. I get as much as I give in Lourdes.”
Michael, 33, has been volunteering at the shrine for the past 17 years and is the first Irish medic to be appointed to the prestigious International Medical Committee which evaluates miracles in Lourdes.
“It took me totally by surprise,” says Michael, who is based at the Belfast Health Trust, completing a PhD on the molecular pathology of head and neck cancer. “I felt fairly junior as a doctor, when I was asked but, as the years go on and I become a consultant and — hopefully — an academic surgeon, I will develop as a specialist in my field and be of greater use.”
He is the founder of Seirbhís, an all-Ireland association of healthcare professionals working at the shrine. Michael also manages the Seirbhís website, which acts as a point of contact for Irish medical professionals who volunteer in Lourdes — either as members of a diocesan or other group pilgrimage or as individuals with the Hospitalité Notre-Dame de Lourdes.
This group was commissioned by Dr Sandro de Franciscis, head of the Lourdes Medical Association. His goal was for Irish medics to share resources with one another in order to improve the pilgrimage experience together as a nation.
“It is hoped that we will be able to build up a network of doctors who will be able to support pilgrimages in need of medical volunteers, which is based on a successful model of the UK Lourdes Medical Association,” Michael says.
Prior to working as a doctor in Lourdes, Michael volunteered as a youth member with the diocese of Down and Connor, beginning in 1996.
“I started off helping out at the baths and doing the shopping for ill and disabled people in Lourdes,” he says.
He just 16 when he applied. “I was at the lowest age threshold but I got a place with just two weeks to go, as there had been a cancellation. I had, of course, already been to Lourdes with my parents as a child and was there when Pope John Paul II visited.”
The first thing that impressed him were the thousands of pilgrims, but that gave way to more philosophical musings as he began volunteering. “As a teenager in Lourdes, I could see that this is the way the world should be, with the disabled coming first and the able-bodied at the service of those in need,” he says. “That is really the way the world should be but rarely is.”
He describes himself as coming from a typical Catholic family in the North, regularly attending Mass with his father, also Michael, a retired biology lecturer, and his mother, Anne, the pro vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster.
One of the annual trips to Lourdes would always take place during the July 12 commemorations in the North, escaping the incendiary celebrations in Belfast and enjoying the tranquility of Lourdes, where the Troubles seemed a world away.
“I remember as a teenager anxiously watching the TV in Lourdes and seeing what was going on in Belfast and wondering how bad things were going to get,” says Michael. “Lourdes was a safe haven during those times.”
While thousands of claims have been made, only 68 miraculous cures have so far been recognised by the Church. The latest occurred in 2011 and concerned a French TV repairman who made a 1,000-mile hike after his paralysed leg was inexplicably healed.
The Lourdes Medical Committee could find no rational or scientific reason for the cure and sent their findings to the local bishop who informed the Vatican where it was officially recognised as miraculous.
“The important thing to remember about the medical committee is that it is dedicated to medical science and is not religious in that sense,” says Michael. “You don’t even have to be a Catholic to be a member. The purpose of the committee is to assess apparent cures from a medical perspective. We are made up of doctors with expertise in specialist fields. If someone comes forward to say their illness has dramatically disappeared we will look at that and assess it.
“Appearing to be better is not enough. In very many cases, it may be that the symptoms have abated but the illness remains or that, say, in the case of cancer, the person is in remission but the disease is still there, just dormant.
“We have very strict criteria and we can request further medical evidence if that is appropriate. We would also ask for further investigations to demonstrate that the absence of illness is long-lasting.
“It is important that the assessment is robust scientifically. We are not in the business of trying to encourage people to come forward. Our role is to be objective and independent.
“If, however, the panel of doctors conclude that there is no medical explanation for the illness disappearing we then write to the person’s bishop to take it further in terms of contacting the Vatican.”
He has heard stories from people but was never present at any physical cure. “In any case, Lourdes is much more than that,” says Michael. “Anyone who goes there will tell you that the real wonder of Lourdes is seeing the helpers assisting the disabled and the spiritual enlightenment you receive just by being there. It helps to release you of all your emotional burdens. Even people who are very ill and remain so still find it to be an amazing experience.”
This is his 10th year on the medical team. “That speaks for itself. It would be unthinkable for me not to be doing this. It has been my formative experience. My best friends go to Lourdes. There are people I meet up with every time I am there and we get to see each other every few months.”
“I almost feel selfish because we have a brilliant time there. I never feel in any way begrudging about going to Lourdes as a pilgrim. It is an event on my calendar. I go about three times a year and I always look forward to it. It always feels like coming home.”
nThe inaugural meeting of Seirbhís takes place in Renehan Hall, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, on Saturday, March 1. seirbhis.wordpress.com.