Dr Michael Moran talks ‘miracles and medicine’
When Belfast doctor Michael Moran, then just three years and five months, was carried shoulder high in a 150,000 crowd by his father to get a better view of Pope John Paul II as he celebrated Mass in Lourdes on August 15, 1983, he or his family could have no idea of the central role the world famous Marian Shrine would play in his later life.
Last month it was announced that Dr Moran (34), currently a ENT Registrar with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust had become the first Irish person to be appointed to the prestigious Le Comité Médical International de Lourdes (CMIL), a committee of 34 medical doctors from 10 different countries tasked with evaluating claims of miraculous cures in Lourdes.
He has “no idea” why he was chosen.
Michael has been a volunteer on the annual Down and Connor diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes for the past 17 years, first as a youth volunteer and for the past 10 years as a doctor.
Since 2012 he has been the chief medical officer leading a team of six doctors, 20 nurses and another 20 ‘handmaidens’ caring for around 600 pilgrims who make the trip by air over six days each July.
“It is a great honour to be appointed to CMIL,” he says “and my first response was I have to become a better Catholic and give back to Lourdes in as many ways as I can.”
CMIL, established in 1947, pronounces on whether there is a medical explanation for a cure and if there isn’t the case is referred to the bishop of the person who has been cured. The bishop would normally officially recognise that a miraculous cure has taken place.
A declaration of a cure is rare. An estimated two hundred million pilgrims have visited Lourdes since the 18 apparitions Our Lady is believed to have made to a 14-year-old peasant girl, now St Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.
Six million pilgrims visit the shrine at the foot of the Pyrenees each year and around 7,000 cures are reported to have been claimed down the years.
However, only 69 cures have been deemed miraculous by the Church, the latest by the Bishop of Pavia in Italy last June.
This was in respect of an Italian woman Danila Castelli who became seriously ill in 1982. After the removal of part of her pancreas a tumour was discovered and several surgeries followed in the period up to 1988 all without success.
She was then about to be admitted to the Mayo Clinic in the US but first undertook a pilgrimage to Lourdes and felt “an extraordinary feeling of wellbeing” in the baths.
The CMIL finally declared that her cure could not be explained scientifically in 2011.
Most cures have taken place in the baths when people have bathed in the water from the spring which is believed to have begun to flow the day after the ninth apparition, or during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament.
Dr Moran stresses that the CMIL which meets annually is totally independent of the Church and its members are not required to be Catholics.
Members are unpaid and meet all their own expenses “so they are totally independent”.
Dr Moran explains that CMIL takes many years to makes its decisions as in the case of Danila Castelli.
This is because the Committee conducts its work according to the Lambertini Criteria as defined in the 18th Century by Cardinal Lambertini the future Pope Benedict XIV for the process of beatification.
“The criteria includes that it must be a serious illness where medical treatment has seriously failed and that there is a complete spontaneous resolution of the disease that is long lasting.”
There is a difference between, for example, a shoulder injury and an incurable cancer.
“It is not enough just to have a relief of the symptoms, the disease has to be eliminated completely and this must be verified by scans and biopsies.
“It takes at least 10 years to examine a case to establish the permanency of a resolution, it is a very stringent very slow process.”
He attended his first CMIL meeting in Lourdes last November and gives a fascinating insight into how it approaches its task. “I would call it a very sceptical, almost a negative committee, it has to be sceptical in itself if it is to do its job objectively.”
The fact that its decisions require a two-thirds majority raises the bar further for those claiming miraculous cures.
Dr Moran reveals that because of the longevity of the process there are currently “probably about 10 cases at various stages of investigation”.
The announcement of his appointment coincided with the formation of Seirbhís: Service – the Association of Irish Medical Professionals Working in Lourdes. Michael organised their first meeting recently in Maynooth. They can be contacted at seirbhis.wordpress.com
Seirbhís was commissioned by Dr Alessandro de Franciscis, the head of the Lourdes Medical Bureau and CMIL Secretary who refers claims of apparent cures to CMIL for investigation. He wrote to Dr Moran inviting him to join CMIL.
Seirbhís is for Irish doctors and other medical professionals “to share experiences and resources with one another, in order that they can improve the pilgrimage experience nationally”.
It’s hoped it will “build up a network of doctors who will be able to support pilgrimages in need of medical volunteers, based on the successful model of the UK Lourdes Medical Association”.
Dr Moran, is a past pupil of Rathmore Grammar School in St Anne’s Parish, Belfast where he was brought up “in a typical Catholic family.”
His parents had been in Lourdes before 1983 and he treasures a Lourdes rosary his grandmother McKiernan brought him back when he was a young boy.
His mother Anne is a pro-vice chancellor at the University of Ulster and his father Mike is a retired lecturer in biology at Belfast Institute.
Dr Moran seems destined to go to the top of his profession. He had already a BSc. first class honours in therapeutics and pharmacology when he qualified as a doctor at Queen’s University in 2004 and his CV is replete with prizes and scholarships including an award for public speaking and achievements such as coming first in German in Northern Ireland.
Since becoming a doctor he has gained a Master’s in medical education with distinction and is currently in the final year of his PhD studentship in cancer research and is a trainee head and neck surgeon. His ambition to become an academic cancer surgeon.
Before he commenced his PhD he worked as a doctor in several places including the Mater in Belfast, Manchester and Perth, Australia.
In Manchester he fondly remembers a Protestant patient asking him to say a prayer for her in Lourdes.
Michael Moran stresses that cures real or imaginary are only a tiny part of the Lourdes experience. “There are thousands and thousands of stories that CMIL can never capture. There is the love and solace experienced by countless sick and disabled people.”
After his appointment to CMIL he stepped up his Lourdes effort further by joining Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes for a week each year. They are volunteers who welcome pilgrims and do things like transferring luggage and marshalling services.
His father who accompanies him has been a member for many years.
Shining through our conversation is Michael Moran’s “fairly strong” faith which he finds easier to practice in Lourdes than at home.
“When you are in Lourdes you feel very much at one with God. You are surrounded by Catholicism and by the love of God and your fellow man. It is harder when you return home to the normal and the routine.”
Asked if his faith helps him to be a better doctor he seems to have no doubt that it does.
He talks about “saying a prayer when scrubbing in before surgery” or “a quick Hail Mary for guidance before trying to figure out a problem”.
When he’s near the Adoration Chapel on the Falls Road close to the Royal Victoria Hospital he likes to “pop in for a while”.
It is heartening that someone like Dr Michael Moran has still so much to give.