Part 2: Yesterday and Today
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 12, 2014)
The following is the second in a five-part weekly series:
While prayer for healing may be widely accepted by Catholics, in the Protestant world it is often a matter of dispute. Apart from the Pentecostal churches, and some streams of the Anglican (Episcopalian) tradition, historically many Protestants have doubted that healing in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit was meant to continue in the life of the Church after the time of the apostles. Healing miracles were only necessary at first to establish the authority of Christ and of the 12 apostles, it was said. After that, in the present dispensation, we are not to expect them, and we have recourse only to medical science to aid us in our sufferings. (To be fair, it should be added here that Protestant missionaries have a long history of providing medical care for the poor and the sick — thereby offering healing to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ).
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear, however, that the power of the Holy Spirit to heal broken bodies and wounded emotions was intended to be an ongoing part of the life of the community of Jesus' disciples. For example, at the very end of St. Mark's gospel, the risen Lord tells His followers:
Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation. And these will be the signs that will be associated with believers; in My name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues. ... they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover. (Mk 16:17-18)
Notice that it is all "believers" (and not just the apostles) who will do these things. In I Corinthians 12, St. Paul lists the gift of "healing" as one of the special gifts of the Holy Spirit that He pours out upon the Body of Christ. Since the Church is Christ's Mystical Body, filled with His life-giving Holy Spirit, it only stands to reason that His healing love and power would work through many members of that Body, and not just through the apostolic ministry or the hierarchy. The Church is literally Christ's hands and feet, His extended Body to carry out His mission to spread the Kingdom of God until He comes again. As we have seen in part one of this series, the dawning of the Kingdom that He brings includes the liberation of His people from all that oppresses them: sin and guilt, suffering and death.
In fact, according to the early Fathers of the Church, that is precisely what happened in the first centuries of the Christian movement. In the second century, for example, St. Ireneus of Lyons recorded a long list of the kinds of healing in the name of Jesus still going on in His day. In the same century, Origen of Alexandria wrote: "The name of Jesus can still remove distractions from the minds of men, expel demons, and also take away diseases." In the third century we read of the life and deeds of St. Gregory Thaumatourgos (in other words, "the Healer"). Perhaps the most impressive testimony in this regard comes from St. Augustine in the 5th century. In his early writings he had claimed that the ministry of healing prayer had ceased in the Church and was no longer necessary. But personal experiences of his own after he became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa changed his mind. In 427 A.D., just three years before he died, he wrote:
I realized how many miracles were occurring in our own day which were so like the miracles of old, and also how wrong it would be to allow the memory of these marvels of divine power to perish from among our people. It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo, and already, at this writing, we have nearly seventy attested miracles.
Miracles of healing were so prevalent in this era that Dr. Ramsey MacMullen, a professor of ancient history at Yale University, claims the primary reason for the conversion of pagans of the Roman Empire to the Christian faith was the deep impression made on their hearts and minds by the works of healing and exorcism by the early Christians.
And it was not just works of supernatural healing that impressed the unbelievers so much. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great founded and maintained a large hospital outside of Caesarea, probably the first public institution devoted to the free care of the sick. In the same century, the pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate complained "Now we can see what makes Christians such powerful enemies of our gods. It is the brotherly love which they manifest toward strangers, and toward the sick and the poor." In short, both through their prayers for healing in the power of the Holy Spirit and through their generous sharing of medical care with the suffering, the early Christians amazed the ancient world with the compassionate love of Jesus Christ.
To be sure, the Church cannot manifest the healing power of Christ to the extent that Jesus Himself could during His sojourn on earth. The Church is the Body of Christ, but as members of the Church, we are imperfect channels and vessels of His healing love. We are sinners, not yet fully cured of our sins. Thus, Jesus Christ healed by touch and by divine word of command, whereas we can do so only by prayer (often accompanied with the laying on of hands), or by the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or by the relics and invocation of the saints, or by means of the medical arts. In other words, Jesus healed directly, by His own loving power; we, the members of His Body, can only do so indirectly, by drawing on the good things of His creation and on His Holy Spirit in our midst.
Knowledge of these limitations has led some Catholics to shy away from the Church's ministry of healing prayer altogether. They shrink from it out of humility because, after all, maybe it is only real saints who can be true vessels of the supernatural, healing love of Jesus — and we are not saints! We know that many of the saints healed sick people through the Holy Spirit, both during their life on earth and afterward as intercessors in heaven. Other than asking the saints to pray for the afflicted and maybe visiting shrines of the Blessed Virgin Mary to ask for her intercession, maybe it would just be presumptuous of us everyday Catholics to pray for healing and to expect God to use us, too, as instruments of His supernatural, healing power?
We need to be clear: The New Testament nowhere limits the effectiveness of God's healing power solely to the lives of His great saints. God's goodness is so abundant, His mercy so vast, that He even wants to use simple, struggling Christians like you and me to bring comfort and healing to His people. He uses us as instruments of spiritual healing when we evangelize and spread the truth about Jesus Christ and His Church. And, yes, He uses as instruments of physical healing and relief of suffering when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick — both by natural and supernatural means.
This is the old "I'm not worthy" argument. It is true, of course, that the saints are the most clear channels we have of the healing love of Jesus Christ, and the Blessed Virgin Mary above all is our tender Mother of compassion. Visiting a Marian Shrine such as Lourdes to ask her aid for the sick is therefore well worth doing. But remember those verses from St. Mark's gospel with which we began this article: "These are the signs that will be associated with believers... they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover." Again, notice: "believers," not just apostles or saints. That is why the early Christians prayed:
And now, Lord, take note of their threats [that is, the pagan rulers] and help your servants to proclaim your message with all boldness, by stretching out your hand to heal and work miracles and marvels through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4: 29-30)
Just like these earliest Christians, we, too, are called to "proclaim" the gospel message both in word and deed, including deeds of healing love by the power of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, our sins and our limitations, our timidity and our lack of faith will sometimes get in the way, but that should not deter us from stepping out "with all boldness" to do whatever we can. To do any less is really not humility at all, but a lack of faith and courage.
Is this "failure of nerve" one of the reasons why the ministry of healing prayer is so limited — and so limited in effectiveness — in the Church today? It would seem so. But in addition to our excessive timidity in this regard, there is simply a widespread ignorance of the different means of healing that Jesus has given to us, and how to use them well.
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.