Danila Castelli and the face of healing shrines
Even though most Americans believe in miracles, only a handful believe that miracles happen more often at a shrine than anywhere else. Eighty-one percent of our survey participants said miracles happen (other polls consistently report 75 percent or more). Yet only 13 percent believed that shrines have special healing power.
Though they seem a world apart from the high-octane faith healers considered earlier in this book, healing shrines face the same challenge of proving their authenticity. How can we know they’re for real? Most miracle claims are dismissed as the result of natural healing processes or other physical changes that would have happened anyway, so that no actual miracle was required.
The effects of asthma and ulcers can vary based on a patient’s psychological state. Arthritis and multiple sclerosis are two of many diseases with symptoms that naturally improve from time to time without any outside medical (or miraculous) intervention.
So how can anyone, even if favorably disposed toward miracles and healing shrines, know for sure that a dramatic improvement or cure was thanks to a pilgrimage to a healing site and not due to natural healing, psychological factors, or some unexpected change that could still be explained in naturalistic terms?
Lourdes: The Gold Standard
The gold standard for proof of miracle cures at shrines is the Sanctuary of Lourdes, the most famous and most visited shrine in the world. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwestern France, Lourdes has a spring whose waters have since the 1860s been acclaimed for their healing properties. Six million pilgrims from all over the world visit every year. The sick make the trip to drink, bottle, or bathe in the icy mountain water that they hope will miraculously cure them.
The story of the shrine at Lourdes begins on February 11, 1858, when a fourteen-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous was out gathering firewood. That day she saw a misty vision of “a young and very beautiful lady, in a white robe with a blue sash” standing on a rock in a grotto above the river. The vision told Bernadette to visit the same spot every day for two weeks and tell the local priest to build a chapel on the spot for people to pray and do penance.
The vision also showed Bernadette where to dig with her hands to reveal a spring, and told her to drink the water and wash in it. Local residents heard Bernadette’s story and started visiting the spring in hopes of healing miracles. At first, church and civic authorities didn’t believe the girl, but then reports of miracles started coming in. A blind man who washed his eyes in the water is said to have received his sight. A dying child dipped in the water reportedly became “well and robust for the first time.”
Finally the local bishop organized an investigation into the claims. After four years of study, a commission of men described as healthy skeptics declared the events to be miracles “contrary to all known biological laws and medical science.”
While the Catholic Church accepted the miracle stories coming from Lourdes, the medical profession did not. Doctors believed Bernadette was hallucinating; some said she was demented. Experts blamed the supposed miracle cures on hysteria, self-hypnosis, autosuggestion, false diagnosis, and other natural causes. Medical professionals who endorsed the cures at Lourdes were themselves considered to be hallucinating and risked ruining their professional reputations.
Eventually the doctors’s hardline stance softened. They established a medical board to investigate the healing claims at Lourdes. Then as now, their criteria for certifying a miracle were stringent. As medical science has progressed, the standards of proof at Lourdes have grown increasingly rigorous so that the possibility of a cure by natural means needs to be exhaustively documented and ruled out before any claim of miraculous healing is declared.
Note that in the early days of the shrine, claims circulated that something extraordinary in the water gave the spring its power. The water was analyzed in 1858 and again in 1934. In both cases the results showed the water to be indistinguishable from other water in the area.
A Certified Miracle
At the time of this writing, the most recent authenticated miracle in the history of Lourdes was announced on June 20, 2013. Mrs. Danila Castelli was pronounced miraculously cured after receiving the waters at Lourdes on May 4, 1989, following a twenty-three-year investigation into her case by the medical board.
Castelli’s medical problems began in 1980 with a diagnosis of high blood pressure, including unexplained spikes that were dangerously high. After an ultrasound in 1982, she had a hysterectomy and annexectomy to remove fibrous masses that doctors thought were causing the problem. However, these surgeries did not help her condition. Between then and 1988 Castelli underwent numerous additional surgeries without improvement.
In 1988 Castelli planned a trip to the Mayo Clinic in the United States for further tests. Then she decided instead to fulfill a longstanding wish and go the shrine at Lourdes. She and her husband traveled from their home in Pavia, Italy, to the shrine.
A large plaza and church is built on the hillside above the spring, surrounded by treatment and support facilities. Since many thousands arrive at Lourdes every year who are unable to walk, there are accommodations for them as well — pilgrims are pushed in wheelchairs or carried on stretchers by volunteers to the spring where they can drink the water, splash it on themselves, or be lowered up to their necks in water so cold it shocks even the healthiest and heartiest visitor.
It was a hard journey for Castelli, who was frail and sick. She chose to be immersed in the water and came out, she said later, with “an extraordinary feeling of wellbeing.” In that moment she knew she was well. Her husband was waiting for her at the exit. As soon as he saw her he said, “Danila, I know that everything now has passed. I know that everything is behind us.”
Her blood pressure, dangerously high for eight years and reported as 280/150, was cured. Eight years of drugs and surgery had failed to help her, but after immersion in the spring at Lourdes she was completely and permanently healed. She reported her story to the Lourdes Office of Medical Observations, beginning a long series of steps toward certifying her cure as a miracle.
A Vatican official explained how the process works. “When a miracle is recognized by the Medical Bureau of the Sanctuary of Lourdes, the paperwork is sent back to the diocese of origin. When recognized by the local bishop, it is recognized officially by the Church as a miracle through the intercession of Our Lady.”
Before making its final determination that the event was miraculous, the Lourdes medical bureau met five separate times between 1989 and 2010. Doctors rotate in and out of the bureau over time and are from a variety of nationalities and religious beliefs. Doctor Alessandro de Franciscis, head of the medical bureau at the time, reported that at its final meeting on the case in 2010, more than 100 doctors and nurses — with one abstention — approved the cure as miraculous after a “lengthy” and “very passionate” discussion.
“This lady was judged, indeed certified, cured in a way unexplained by current medical scientific knowledge,” Dr. de Franciscis said. She was cured in “a complete and lasting way” that “had no possible relation either with the treatment she had received or with the surgical interventions she had received.” Her previous surgeries had offered “no clinical benefit.”
In 2011 the medical board reported their findings to the Bishop of Lourdes. According to established procedure, he forwarded the medical study to the Bishop of Pavia, in Castelli’s hometown, to officially declare the healing a miracle. On June 20, 2013, twenty-five years after Danila Castelli’s visit, the bishop proclaimed her healing miraculous based on findings of more than a hundred medical experts over decades of research and discussion.
Nowhere in the long history of Mrs. Castelli’s illness, her treatment, or the medical investigation was there any mention of her religious beliefs. Evidently she never included that information in her submissions to the medical board, and they never asked her about it. What then was the role of faith in her healing? Dr. Theodore Mangiapan, a past president of the Lourdes medical board, offers this perspective: “It is certainly not faith which causes the miracle; but indeed it is faith which recognizes it!”
Danila Castelli’s miracle is tough for hard-core skeptics to write off. As always, they do write it off, but how convincingly? The one abstention on the medical board was someone who personally did not accept the idea of miracles, and even that individual could not deny the strength of the medical evidence.
Out of more than 7,000 reported cures investigated by the medical board since 1858, Danila Castelli’s case was the sixty-ninth officially declared miracle.
Clearly many more than 7,000 visitors believe they were healed and held to that belief regardless of what the medical experts on the board decided. Many of the 7,000 miracles officially submitted have never been certified, in part because supporting medical records were not available.
A Feeling of Great Ease
Another of the sixty-nine certified cures was the case of a 29-year-old Belgian woman named Joachime Dehant. With medical reports from two doctors describing her disability, she arrived in Lourdes in 1878.
For twelve years Dehant had suffered from an ulcer on her right leg. When she arrived in Lourdes the ulcer was 12 inches long, 6 inches wide, and extended to the bone. Her right foot was inverted and the knee joint completely stiff, forming the shape of the number 4. The leg muscles had been damaged. Foul-smelling pus oozed constantly from the wound.
After two 30-minute soakings in the pool beside the spring, Dehant felt an agonizing pain, “but then a feeling of great ease and the disappearance of all suffering,” according to reports. Afterwards the wound was completely cured, the skin reformed, and a perfect scar developed.
A friend who accompanied Joachime Dehant to the baths, the Abbé Devos, had taken care of her on the train. He and the pilgrims traveling with her endured the horrible smell of her festering wound and all verified her sudden and complete healing.
Her right leg and foot returned to their normal shape and function. Dehant had brought boots with her, confident that she would be healed and could wear them home. “When Joachime alighted at Gesves [her home in Belgium] on the return journey,” a summary of the case said, “she was wearing her boots and could walk as well as anybody.”
Eyewitness evidence confirms that the ulcer existed. And eyewitness evidence confirms that after twelve years it disappeared within hours of soaking in the water at Lourdes. Was it a miracle? If not, what was it?
Take Back My Disability Payments
Our earnest hope as we embarked on this study of miracles was to find someone whose sickness or infirmity was so severe and obvious as to merit an official disability payment, and yet who then recovered so completely that the disability payments were stopped. We found our story in Gabriel Gargam, a clerk for the French postal service who in the 1890s worked in a mail car on the train between Bordeaux and Angoulême, sorting letters during the journey for delivery when the train reached its destination.
Gargam was gravely injured in a train wreck while on duty. A summary of his case states, “He woke up in a hospital, bandaged from head to foot, paralyzed from the waist down. He had been crushed almost to death — his spine injured beyond any hope of recovery. The least movement produced vomiting.” Gargam spent twenty months in the hospital. He could only be fed once a day through a tube. “Not eating, he became very weak and emaciated. Gangrenous sores formed on both his feet.”
Doctors from the Orléans Railroad and the postal service submitted detailed reports to the court that judged his disability case. Gargam was awarded 6,000 francs a year, with the court declaring he deserved this substantial annuity because he was “a human wreck who would henceforth need at least two persons to care for him day and night.” (This amount equaled roughly $967 at a time when the average American annual household income was $750.)
Gargam’s mother suggested he make the pilgrimage to Lourdes, where he arrived by train on a stretcher in 1901. After a day of bathing in the spring, his paralysis was gone. Word of his healing spread quickly through the town. When he went to the Medical Bureau to tell his story, sixty doctors along with reporters and other pilgrims crowded so close around him that the doctors were forced to put off examining him until the next day because of the noise and commotion.
The first day before the medical board, he had come on his stretcher dressed in a robe, though he stood to speak to the crowd. The next day Gargam walked in unassisted and wearing a new suit. A summary of his appearance reported, “The sores on his feet, yesterday open and suppurating, were closing perceptibly. He walked without much difficulty. The doctors examined and questioned him for two hours.”
Hard medical evidence supported what the doctors’ eyes told them. “X-rays showed the compression of the lumbar vertebrae where spinal-cord injury had caused the paralysis of the lower part of the body. Now he was able to put aside his feeding tube and to eat normally. In a few days he gained 20 pounds in weight, four inches in the circumference of his leg… The case created a sensation. The sixty physicians who examined him at Lourdes all agreed: the cure was scientifically inexplicable.”
When he returned home, a post office doctor examined him and told him he should return to work immediately. He did so, though he had a very hard time convincing the railroad that he no longer needed his disability payments. By his own admission, Gargam was not a religious person. Yet his experience at Lourdes left him strong, healthy, and free of disability.
For years afterward, Gabriel Gargam volunteered as a stretcher bearer at Lourdes, “sturdily carrying other patients on his once gangrenous feet.” He visited the shrine annually until the year before his death at 83 in 1952.
Gargam’s miracle featured both solid medical evidence of his past disability and a host of eyewitnesses, including doctors, testifying to his healing. Unusually compelling in this case is that the young postal worker was so obviously and completely disabled by the train crash that his employer awarded him lifetime disability payments to maintain two caretakers around the clock for the rest of his life. After his healing, the post office could not believe that following almost two years in the hospital, Gargam was good as new when he returned home from his pilgrimage.
Though this cure was recognized by the medical board at Lourdes, it has never been certified by the Catholic Church and therefore is not counted among the sixty-nine official miracle healings. The reason for this decision by the church is not known. It makes one wonder how many unofficial but nonetheless real miracles of healing have happened at Lourdes.
Hard Scientific Proof
Lourdes is a Catholic shrine. While any visitors can travel there as they wish, pilgrims in search of healing have to apply through the Catholic church and travel with a group led by Catholic clergy. (For United States residents, pilgrimages are scheduled through the shrine office in Syracuse, New York.)
This policy is in part practical: six million visit Lourdes every year, and it is a small, isolated town. Many of the pilgrims are disabled or completely immobilized. Without a system to coordinate pilgrim travel to Lourdes, there would be chaos. By comparison, the Hajj to Mecca attracts fewer than two and a half million pilgrims per year.
Yet the Church also continues to emphasize the religious aspects of the experience and of the reported miracles. Information from the Catholic News Agency and from Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Lourdes emphasizes the veneration of Mary and the importance of following her call to prayer and penitence.
Yet for the skeptic — who may be an agnostic, an atheist, or even a person of faith — proof of miracles should be independent of religious belief or practice. As noted earlier, the Catholic Church holds that no cure at Lourdes is properly authenticated as a miracle until certified by the Catholic bishop of the diocese where the cured person lives. But let us set aside the ecclesiastical seal of approval for a moment and look strictly at the role of scientific evidence in verifying a miracle.
Danila Castelli had been dealing with her medical condition for eight years. All those pages of medical records described a woman with dangerously high blood pressure who had undergone many doctor examinations and numerous serious and invasive surgeries without relief. Regardless of one’s religious belief or the absence of it, the medical documentation was both voluminous and unambiguous.
Here was someone gravely sick whom no medical intervention had helped or could seem to help. She bathed in the water at Lourdes and was instantly healed. Eventually a hundred doctors from all over the world reviewed her case, examined the evidence, and agreed that her healing constituted a miracle.
Yet neither she nor Gabriel Gargam was particularly devout. It doesn’t seem that their faith healed them. Rather God, at a time and place of divine choosing, seems to have sovereignly decided to heal them. At least so it appeared to many observers.
An Open System
Cases like those of Castelli and Gargam show no sign of being explained in naturalistic terms at a future date thanks to future advances in medical knowledge. To be sure, one can speculate about hitherto unknown and perhaps unknowable healing processes inside the human body that were suddenly and inexplicably activated when the waters of Lourdes touched Castelli or Gargam.
But how is such an argument from ignorance any more insightful or better than calling what happened a miracle? Perhaps advances in medical knowledge will overturn the claim that these are miracles. But by the same token, any of our most cherished beliefs can be overturned by possible, but as yet unconceived, advances in knowledge, especially if we offer no details about the form of that future knowledge.
In any case, if we stick with real medical knowledge as we actually know it, and not as a form of sheer speculation verging on science fiction, then it seems entirely reasonable to describe these cures at Lourdes as miraculous. It doesn’t take any sophisticated diagnostic equipment or advanced techniques to diagnose an ulcer, a crushed pelvis, or a deadly tumor.
Medical professionals and others have watched patients with such conditions get steadily worse over a period of years. Then equally capable medical professionals and witnesses saw these same conditions disappear completely within a day or less.
There is no gap in medical knowledge here. There are no missing pages in the patient histories. The information chain is unbroken. The most plausible explanation for what happened is that whatever power or entity established the natural laws that ordinarily govern the world reached in and suspended them. In other words, what happened was a miracle.
These cases at Lourdes argue in favor of some force outside of and acting upon the natural world. If the natural world is a closed system, then exceptions to natural law are not possible. But these examples describe events that cannot reasonably be squared with the laws of nature as we know them.
Instead, these examples strongly suggest that natural laws are not inviolable and that the world is an open system, capable of being acted on by a supernatural force outside of it. For those who believe in God, the identity of this force is self-evident. For those who don’t, healings like those of Castelli, Dehant, and Gargam strike a sharp cognitive dissonance.
Loudres is the most visited healing shrine in the world, with the most advanced protocol for authenticating a miracle. What follows is a sampling of other well-known miracle sites where healings or visions are supposed to have taken place.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima. This shrine in Portugal receives four million visitors per year. It arose from a series of visions of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd girls on the thirteenth of each month between May and October 1917. The oldest child, ten-year-old Lúcia, described the vision as “more brilliant than the sun.” She said Mary told the children to do penance to save sinners. In obedience, they wore tight cords around their waists, didn’t drink water on hot days, and performed other ascetic acts.
Mary, they claimed, stressed to them the utmost importance of saying the rosary every day as the key to personal and world peace. The virgin revealed the three secrets of Fátima to the children on July 13, though they were not written down until 1941. The first was a vision of hell; the second foretold the end of WWI and the beginning of WWII and called for the consecration of Russia; the third has evidently not been fully revealed by the Vatican, and is a prophecy about a pope being killed by soldiers.
Lúcia continued to see visions of the Virgin at various other times until her death in 2005 at the age of 97. Visitors to Fátima today pray in honor of the three shepherd girls and their visions, and reflect on the Virgin’s message. They also pray to Mary for healing and other blessings.
El Santuario de Chimayo. This shrine in northern New Mexico receives around 300,000 visitors a year, many of them coming for the tierra bendita, or holy dirt, taken from a small pit in the floor of an adobe church on the site. Pilgrims traditionally walk to the church, some from as far as Albuquerque ninety miles away. When they arrive, they scoop up dirt to eat, rub on their bodies, or take home for its supposed miraculous healing properties. Caretakers regularly refill the pit with dirt from the hills nearby.
The Holy Wells of Penwith. These are a series of ancient wells in Cornwall on the southwestern tip of England. According to legend, these wells promote healing as well as prophetic powers. Most of wells are now surrounded by ruined chapels or shrines. They tend to be visited today for their beautiful views rather than for their medicinal properties.
In all, nineteen wells exist at Penwith, including Boscaswell and Castle Horneck, traditionally used to treat eye problems; St. Euny’s, especially valued for treating sick children; and Madron, for curing lameness and other infirmities. Other wells at Penwith have their own special qualities. Gulval is said to bubble if an absent friend is alive in good health and run cloudy otherwise; anyone baptized in the water of Ludgvan would never be hanged.
Medjugorje. In the Herzegovina region of the former Yugoslavia, this shrine has received more than a million pilgrims per year since 1981. It arose when six children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary on the site. After Lourdes and Fátima, Medjugorje is the most popular shrine in Europe.
Visitors say they have seen the sun spin in the sky and turn different colors, though clearly no independent scientific support for such claims exists. It is considered a sacred site by many faithful believers, but the Catholic Church has yet to officially confirm any supernatural events at this shrine. A report considering the question had not been released by the Vatican as of 2017.
Miracles that occur at widely traveled healing shrines are immediately cast into the limelight — how could they not be given the throngs of onlookers? But that raises the question whether genuine miracles can also be found outside the limelight, whether it be the limelight of healing shrines or healing evangelists.
Throughout history and around the world, humble ordinary people have been credited with working real miracles, not seeking the limelight but simply shining with a light of their own. To uncover some of those lights, best-selling author Eric Metaxas has written a collection of stories about miracles he has encountered first-hand.
 Cranston, Ruth, The Miracle of Lourdes, (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1955 and 1988), p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 58.
 All quotations and details of Castelli’s case are taken from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/lourdes-officially-records-69th-miracle/; noteworthy here is the on-camera report of Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis, who was at the time director of the medical bureau at Lourdes.
 For current information on the Shrine of Lourdes see https://www.lourdes-france.org/en.
 Cranston, op. cit., p. 12.
 Ibid., pp. 39-40 for all quotations and details on the case of Joachime Dehant.
 Ibid., pp. 40-42 for all quotations and details on the case of Gabriel Gargam.
 Shrine of Lourdes website, op. cit.