Bull Assoc Med Int Lourdes, Summer 2020, 93 (348-349): 35-42

Sandro de Franciscis

Président du Bureau des Constatations Médicales
Président de l'Association Médicale Internationale de Notre-Dame de Lourdes (AMIL)

Dear AMIL members and dear Bulletin readers,

I am particularly pleased to be able to present this issue of the Bulletin to you, the first to be designed and published during the “COVID-19 era”.

This new and dreaded viral disease, now widespread throughout the world, is caused by a new Coronavirus never previously identified in humans. The virus (previously named 2019-nCoV) is called SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus-2). This was announced by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV), which deals with the naming and description of viruses (i.e. species, gender, family, etc.). According to this group of scientists, the new Coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019, is the brother of the one that caused SARS (SARS-CoV of 2002-2004), hence the name chosen, SARS-CoV-2. The disease caused by this new coronavirus is called COVID-19 (where “CO” stands for corona, “VI” virus, “D” disease and “19” indicates the year in which it first reared its head), as indicated by the Director General of the WHO (World Health Organization).

There are many different coronaviruses; most cause disease in animals. Today, we know that 7 types of coronaviruses are responsible for diseases in humans. Four of these 7 human Coronavirus infections have mild forms in the upper respiratory tract that cause symptoms of a common cold. However, 3 of the 7 human Coronavirus infections, all originally transmitted from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases), can be much more serious and have recently caused large outbreaks of fatal pneumonia:

The emergence of new human pathogenic viruses, which previously only spread in the animal world, is a widely known phenomenon (called spillover or interspecies jump). Interspecies jump is a natural process by which a pathogen, originating from an animal reservoir, evolves and becomes capable of infecting, reproducing and transmitting in the human body. In the case of viruses, it is always a change in their genes. By mutating, viruses can acquire new capacities, in particular by producing new versions of the proteins in their outer coat, the capsid, which are able to recognise human cells, enter them and replicate. This occurs more frequently in RNA viruses, such as the Coronavirus, which on average have a higher mutation rate and therefore can more easily acquire the ability to infect human cells.

Interspecific jump usually occurs as a result of prolonged contact between humans and animals carrying the original pathogen: in the case of viruses, for example, several attempts at “jump” by strains of viruses that mutate at random may be required. The longer and closer the animal-to-human exposure, the more statistically likely it is that a virus randomly mutates into a new strain capable of infecting human cells.

Zoonotic diseases are a natural phenomenon alongside which the human species has coexisted for millennia: many have given rise to full-blown pandemics which have marked and influenced human history. However, the modern world makes the transmission of infectious diseases even easier than in the past. The number of human beings on our planet is approaching 8 billion, and well over half of them live in urban areas, about 40 of these with more than 5 million inhabitants. Transportation technology and the daily flow of people travelling for economic and recreational purposes theoretically allow a pathogen to be transported from one end of the planet to the other in a matter of hours. Other factors that make the modern world more vulnerable to infectious zoonotic diseases include alterations to our ecosystems and the expansion of man-made urban areas. The wildlife habitats from which viruses originate are being increasingly reduced and replaced by human activity, forcing wild animals to live in close and enforced cohabitation with humans and farmyard animals.

Climate change also creates environments conducive to the proliferation of insects and other animals as vectors of pathogens and – in the case of airborne zoonotic diseases – air pollution makes people generally more vulnerable to respiratory diseases. For these reasons, the frequency of zoonotic diseases is expected to increase over the coming decades.

For us as Catholics, and for us, as men and women of good will, what we have been experiencing for several months all over the world has made the magnificent encyclical letter of Pope Francis “Laudato si ” of 24th May 2015 hugely relevant (http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html).

In this encyclical – which I advise you to read again – the Pope writes courageously and forcefully. From the “no” to the culture of waste, including the demand that we defend people’s right to water; from the harsh judgment on the inability of politics to defend the weak, to the need to create a regulatory system to protect ecosystems – the Pope reminds us that the environment is a gift from God, a common heritage that should not be destroyed or entrusted to cold technocracies. We are all called to be responsible stewards of Creation. What the Pope calls “integral ecology” cannot be separated from the common good; this is why global governance is crucial in environmental matters. And before concluding his text with two prayers, Pope Francis warns that the absolute domination of finance has no future and reiterates our “no” as Christians to corruption, inviting us to rediscover how liberating simplicity and restraint in life can be.

What has shaken and continues to shake the whole world has also affected us, as friends of Lourdes. First of all, you dear Colleagues, Nurses and Healthcare Professionals around the world, you who have been called upon for months to work in extreme conditions and often without equipment. And of course, us, resident here in Lourdes. At the end of February, the Sanctuary implemented the first measures in progressively limiting its activities until the gates were finally closed on Monday 16th March, the day before the general public went into lockdown throughout France.

I returned to the Office on Monday 11th May, accompanied by our small but amazing team composed of Christine Gago, Maryline Plagnet and Matthew Kang with whom I had also been in contact thanks to the internet.

Only time will bear witness to the incredibly generous spirit of the community of ‘chaplains’ of the Sanctuary during the two difficult months of lockdown where they lived in the most rigorous isolation. Under the direction of the Rector, Monseigneur Olivier Ribadeau Dumas, prayer at the Grotto was uninterrupted and continuous. Broadcast by TV Lourdes, Eucharistic celebrations and recitation of the Rosary took place throughout the day – from very early in the morning until late at night. We have received testimonies and gratitude from around the world from all those who have been able to be united in prayer from the Grotto, even if only for a few minutes.

It was in the first days after the end of lockdown that I began to “think” about the Bulletin that you have in your hands. And I wrote a letter to the many people who had written to me during those months to say hello, to ask for prayers and to get news. I asked them if they would like to write a few pages for our Bulletin, telling how they had experienced the epidemic, how their lives had changed and what “Lourdes” meant to them.

To my surprise, I received over 50 contributions from different continents and countries. All very personal and meaningful. But they are too numerous to be contained in a single issue of the Bulletin!

Thanks to the generosity of two dear Hospitalier friends of Lourdes – Filippo Maria Pietropaolo and Domenico Ferrari di Pantene, we had already – at the end of November – decided to create a website for the AMIL with their company ‘Refill’. The project was coordinated for AMIL by Matthew Kang. Now that travelling has become so difficult, the site has become vital for us, a space where we can meet, exchange information, renew memberships and subscribe to the Bulletin. I am therefore proud to invite you to visit the site at www.amilourdes.com. I thank all those who have made it possible and I thank all of you for the patience with which I know you will explore it and perhaps point out any errors, imperfections and possible improvements.

And the unexpected coincidence of the website being ready, combined with the large number of articles, has produced the exact context I envisaged for this Summer Bulletin. A Bulletin printed on paper – which we will continue to post out to you – but also available on the web.

The Bulletin opens with a few contributions from Lourdes. Father Régis-Marie de La Teyssonnière, Chaplain of the Sanctuary and Historian, talks about Lourdes in lockdown and Mathias Terrier, Director of Communication for the Sanctuary, presents the challenge that the epidemic has posed in terms of communication. Two colleagues from Lourdes then make their contributions, Dr Jean-Eudes Bourcier, Head of the Emergency Department and SMUR of the Center Hospitalier in Lourdes, and Dr Bénédicte Rouillier-Colia, coordinating doctor of the retirement home “La Madone” in Lourdes and doctor of the mobile palliative care team of the Center Hospitalier in Lourdes. Then, you will find the first of the articles from “outside Lourdes” with a contribution from Professor Olivier Jonquet, Infectious disease specialist and ICU doctor at the Montpellier University Hospital, Co-President of the CMIL – International Medical Committee of Lourdes.

And then all the contributions I received follow. In the printed bulletin, you will find a passage from each article and the digital link to the article in its entirety on the website. These are precious testimonies from France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom, Ireland, United States of America, Haiti, Ghana, Malaysia, Japan, and Australia. They are from Doctors, Pharmacists, Dentists, Nurses, Hospital Chaplains and Students, Christians and non-Christians who simply “love” Lourdes!

On 16th July 2020, the anniversary of the 18th apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes to Saint Bernadette, the first worldwide and virtual pilgrimage took place in Lourdes, under the name of Lourdes United, making the most of TV-Lourdes and the Internet, a successful first such occasion which gave hope to millions of people living in the spirit of Lourdes. More than 80 million virtual pilgrims around the world were connected via this first global digital pilgrimage. Liturgies and testimonies were broadcast in France by KTO TV, Radio Notre Dame, RCF, Radio Espérance and Radio Présence, in the United States by EWTN, in South America by ESNE TV, in Italy by TV 2000 and Vatican News, in India by MADAH TV and Atmadarshan TV, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland by KTV, in the United Kingdom by Radio Maria and in Indonesia by HIDUP TV. Finally, social networks broadcast the highlights of this day of prayer, hope and solidarity. That same day, more than 200,000 messages of support and prayer intentions were sent to the Sanctuary.

Those who wish to relive this magnificent “premiere” can log on to the Sanctuary’s YouTube page: “Lourdes United” – Special broadcast – World’s first e-pilgrimage! 16th July 2020.

We will send this Bulletin to print a few hours after the great feast of the Assumption. It marks the highpoint of the summer, especially for us in Lourdes. And for this Feast we also received great encouragement from two important events. First of all, the presence of the Cardinal Secretary of State of the Pope, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is returning to Massabielle for the third time in the space of a few years, and who has come to preside over the celebrations of this Solemnity. Then, the presence of several hundred pilgrims from the French National Pilgrimage, the oldest pilgrimage that has been coming to Lourdes continuously since 1873, and whose attendance is just as important. This year, the celebration of the 147th National Pilgrimage has given us a lot of encouragement and hope for the future.

This Sanctuary is truly the home of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, who protects and guides us. It is true! This year, we were unable to welcome the  « Sick » coming with an organized Pilgrimage, and cared for by a Hospitality. However – as it happens more and more – some sick people, especially some severely sick and even some dying – keep coming accompanied by their families. We have welcomed them as well as the concern and hope of the Church and of millions of people around the world.

What Father Duboé, MIC, repeated several times in his homily, during the inaugural Mass of the Crypt on 21st May 1866, is so true, “The future of Lourdes? It is contained in its name: the Immaculate Conception!

In the hope of seeing you again soon, my warmest wishes to all of you.