Part 3: Nope, It's Not 'Faith Healing'!
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 19, 2014)
The following is the third in a five-part weekly series:
At the end of last week's article in this series, I suggested that a "failure of nerve" based on a "lack of faith and courage" may be blocking the healing power of Jesus Christ from flowing freely in His Church today. But we also need to remember that healing in the name of Jesus is not the same as "faith-healing." The latter is more of a Protestant phenomena, and it can cause all kinds of problems.
The idea behind "faith healing" seems to be that you will be cured by Jesus Christ precisely to the extent that you believe that He can and will heal you — or as some say, you just have to "claim" your healing by faith in order to get well. This means, of course, that if you are not cured, the fault is all your own because of your lack of faith. I knew a lady once who was paralyzed and bed-ridden. She became convinced by televangelists that Jesus certainly would heal her and set her back on her feet if only she believed. When her healing didn't occur, she sank into guilt, depression, and frustration with her herself for not being able to "claim" her healing. Added to her physical burdens, therefore, she now had a cross of self-hatred to carry!
From a Catholic perspective, however, our own faith is not what heals us: The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the One who does it. No doubt a lack of faith can be a serious obstacle to His work of healing (we will discuss that issue in greater depth later in this series), but it is certainly not the only obstacle to getting well, and it is not the only reason why some people are not, in fact, cured by our Lord.
One of the main obstacles to the full effectiveness of the healing power of Jesus in His Church in our time is simply a widespread ignorance about the forms His healing work can take. Today we will look at two of these forms — the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the special charism of healing given to some members of the Body of Christ. Next week, we will look at one more: the apostolate of prayer for healing by every member of the Church. And then in the final installment of this series, we will show how contemporary medicine and healing prayer are meant to work together in harmony for the healing of God's people.
I. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has its roots in two passages from the New Testament:
They [the apostles] drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mk 6:13)
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. (Jas 5:14-15)
From the New Testament it is clear that the early Church practiced a form of prayer for healing that was combined with an anointing with oil. The oil was sacramentally administered by the clergy, either by the apostles themselves (the first bishops) or by the "elders" (a Jewish term for local pastors). In his classic work on Christian healing entitled simply Healing, Francis MacNutt unfolded for us the deeper meaning of the passage from the Epistle of St. James about this sacrament:
The phrases "will save," "will raise him up," and "will be forgiven" are three key verbs here that indicate the effects of the anointing.
The first, "save,' in the original Greek, is a verb that can mean either healing of the spirit (as does our word "save") or healing in the sense of restoration to physical health. But in the context of sickness, death, or their danger, it always, in New Testament usage, refers to physical healing.
The second verb, "to raise up," clearly refers to healing and is the verb often used in Mark to refer to the healings worked by Jesus.
"Will be forgiven" is the third effect [of sacramental anointing] and refers to sin. This effect is conditional ("if he has committed any sins') and the Greek word used for sins here implies grave sins.
The intended effect of the Anointing of the Sick, therefore, is the healing of the whole person, both body and soul.
From the early Middle Ages onward, however, the main focus of this sacrament started to change. It began to be called "Extreme Unction," and "Last Rites." It was to be administered only to those in imminent danger of death, to provide them with spiritual strength and the forgiveness of sins in their final hours. In other words, what was originally just one possible use of this sacrament became the only permissible use.
At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a full appreciation for the nature and proper scope of this sacrament was finally restored. The Church changed the official name from "Extreme Unction" to "The Anointing of the Sick." The sacrament was to be administered to all those who are seriously ill, not just to those in imminent danger of death. Moreover, the forms used to administer the sacrament were changed, so that the words the priest says now emphasize that it is a prayer for the healing of the body and mind, and not just for the forgiveness and sanctification of the soul.
I especially like the prayer for the blessing of the oil that is used in this sacrament:
Lord God, all comforting Father, you brought healing to the sick through your Son Jesus Christ. Hear us as we pray to you in faith, and send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, from heaven upon this oil, which nature has provided to serve the needs of men. May your blessing come upon all who are anointed with this oil, that they may be freed from pain, illness, and disease, and made well again in body, mind, and soul. Father, may this oil which you have blessed for our use produce its healing effect, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the main obstacle to the effective use of this sacrament in the Church today is simply its widespread neglect. Do we remember to ask for an anointing — to open our hearts to the healing love of Jesus poured out through this sacrament — whenever we fall into serious illness? Are our priests willing and able to administer this sacrament other than as a direct preparation for death?
II. The second form of healing ministry in the name of Jesus is the special gift or "charism" of healing by the Holy Spirit that He gives to a relatively small number of chosen individuals. To some people He grants a special grace whereby their acts of prayer for the sick, with the laying on of hands, often have the effect of producing partial or complete healing — sometimes instantaneously and sometimes gradually. Whereas the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is administered by the clergy, the special charism of healing is something that can be given to any member of the Body of Christ, lay or ordained.
In some Catholic communities there may be several people with this gift. In others there may be just one, or none at all. They do not heal by magic touch; rather, they use prayer with the laying on of hands. Over time it becomes clear, both to themselves and to others, that God often uses them to bring relief and recovery to people who are ill.
To be chosen by Christ to receive this charism does not imply that one is more holy or more saintly than anyone else — any more than receiving other extraordinary gifts, such as the gift of speaking in tongues or the gift of prophecy, necessarily implies some advanced spiritual status. According to St. Paul in I Corinthians 12, these special gifts are all intended for the building up of the life of the Church, but whether they lead the person who exercises them to greater sanctity is not guaranteed. Just as with any good gift of the Lord, it must be used with humility, gratitude, and love, otherwise it can actually become an obstacle to a person's spiritual growth.
A good example of someone who has received and exercised this gift for the good of the Church is a Massachusetts man named Frank Kelly, who literally discovered his special gift "by accident": He discovered it when he was recovering from a near fatal electrocution! Mr. Kelly was featured in an article on this website. I'll quote from the article:
His healing ministry is sanctioned by the Church. His spiritual adviser, the Rev. Ronald K. Tacelli, SJ, professor of philosophy at Boston College, says "God uses Frank, this very human man with his radiant smile and remarkable touch and words of knowledge, as a sensible sign of the eternal Love that lies at the heart of things: the Love that created us, sustains us, reaches out to us, and wants to heal us of hate and sin."
Frank goes wherever he's invited, because that's what Jesus told him to do — "to go and instruct," Frank says.
Frank individually prays over people, asking only for their first name. He says God speaks through him. He gives each person a personal message from God, sometimes involving illnesses known or unknown. He often gives people the name of a saint to pray to.
"Jesus is still the healer," he says. "I couldn't heal a bug. All of this is done for the purpose of giving glory to Jesus."
If you believe that you may have this special gift, therefore, the first thing to do is to immediately confer with your pastor or spiritual director. He (or she) will be able to guide you so that your gift can be put to good use and so that you can avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with it (such as pride or seeking fame for oneself), pitfalls into which Satan seeks to drag anyone with a special gift of any kind from the Lord.
Here, again, perhaps the biggest obstacle to the exercise of the gift of healing is that many people never even know they have it. In order to discern a gift such as this, you have to try it out. Without making a big "show" or drawing attention to yourself, simply lay your hands on friends and family who are sick on a regular basis and pray for them. Then see what happens. Such prayers will certainly do no one any harm (more on that next week), and in any case, they are the only way that we can find reliable evidence of such a special charism. How sad it is that the Holy Spirit empowers many people with this gift who never learn they posses it because they are too embarrassed or too timid even to try!
Read the series in full:
• Part 1: Is It for Real?
• Part 2: Yesterday and Today
• Part 3: Nope, It's Not 'Faith Healing'!
• Part 4: At the Heart of Healing Prayer
• Part 5: Modern Medicine, Healing Prayer Can Work Together
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.