With today’s celebration of the centenary of Pope St. John Paul II’s birth, some are revisiting the miracles that led to his canonization. A passionate champion of the Blessed Mother and the miracles attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes, the Polish pope would no doubt have been pleased that a seventieth miracle at Lourdes was officially recognized by the Catholic Church in 2018.
Unlike the late and truly great John Paul, I admit to cautious skepticism about Marian apparitions; probably a holdover from my Protestant days. So, my expectations were low as some colleagues and I drove some years ago through the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains to the picturesque French town of Lourdes. It was a beautiful, cool spring day and, except for a few tourists and locals, we had the place to ourselves. We even found a parking spot within sight of the famous grotto by the river.
Some of the miracle stories from Lourdes are nothing less than astonishing. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the well-known Jesuit who later served as Father General of the Society of Jesus, was a witness to some of them. As a young medical student on a family trip to Lourdes, he volunteered to put his medical training to use by evaluating claims of miracles. Shortly after witnessing the immediate healing of a young man suffering from polio, he relinquished his pursuit of a medical career and began formation to become a Jesuit priest.
Such stories are moving, but we all know that miracles do not happen every time we ask for them. Why does God perform miracles in some cases and not others? A good place to start, as with most questions about the faith, is Holy Scripture.
Miracles are less frequent in the Bible than you might think. Over the few thousand years of narrative history in the Bible, there are several relatively brief periods characterized by numerous miracles, while in other eras they are comparatively rare. We find the first great era of miracles in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 7-12), including the conquest of Canaan and the formative years that followed (e.g., Jericho, Samson). A second era of miracles appears with the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17-19). And it would be centuries later when the next burst of miracles occur in Scripture with the life of Jesus and the ministry of the early Apostles.
Biblical miracles typically function as signs that bring attention to special moments of divine revelation. John’s Gospel makes this abundantly clear by referring to miracles as “signs” (e.g. John 2:11). In light of the uniqueness of these moments of biblical history, there is rich significance in Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8).
Jesus’ miracles revealed truths that were life-changing to those who saw or heard about them. The lame man lowered through the roof into Jesus’ presence is a great example (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus asked his critics, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk?’” It is harder to say “take up your pallet and walk” since observers will quickly know whether one really has the power to heal another person’s ailments. It is hard to stand before a crowd of people and declare, “I can lift 5,000 pounds with my bare hands!” My audience might actually expect me to do it! If Jesus can do the thing that is harder to say, it follows that we are on good ground believing that he is able to do the thing that is easier to say.
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you, Rise, take up your pallet, and go home.” This healing highlighted Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. Those who saw the miracle were challenged to recognize Jesus as the divine source of forgiveness.
Consider also the various times when Jesus forbade those who were healed from telling others about what happened to them (e.g. Mark 5:43). Since the meaning of Christ’s ministry could only be understood in light of his passion, death, and resurrection, speaking about his miracles without that context was liable to result in misunderstanding and misguided expectations. Miracles are not intended to stand alone.
Returning to the present, miracles like those at Lourdes are not random mechanical acts of God. We cannot discern in them a pattern that inevitably leads to our desired outcome. God, as cause of miracles, determines if and when they will occur.
Finally, the fact that miracles do not occur in every instance confirms the difficult but crucially important truth that this world is not our end—it points to a transformed “new heavens and new earth.” This world is passing away. “All flesh is as grass and the glory of man as the flower of grass” (Isaiah 40:6, 1 Peter 1:24). Unless we deeply digest this truth, our thinking is likely to become clouded and we will vainly expect this world to give us enduring happiness and health that it cannot possibly give.
Entering the grotto at Lourdes on that cool, spring day, an unexpected power seized me. I was filled with a sense of peace and the presence of God. Others in our group had similar experiences. Years later, I cherish that moment. Because of it, I have come to love Lourdes. Indeed, God surprises us. Sometimes God’s surprise includes a miracle.
If you have water from Lourdes, by all means use it as you bless yourself and your loved ones. If God heals you, give him thanks and praise. If he doesn’t, worship him anyway. Soon enough, God will bring total healing when the redemption for which all creation groans finally appears (Romans 8:22-24).