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Praying for Healing - The Challenge
by Benedict Heron OSB

Part 2

Chapter 2: Praying for Healing and the Medical Professions

Treat the doctor with the honour that is his due,
in consideration of his services;
for he too has been created by the Lord.
Healing itself comes from the Most High,
like a gift received from a king.
The doctor's learning keeps his head high,
and the great regard him with awe.
The Lord has brought forth medicinal herbs from
the ground, and no one sensible will despise them.
Did not a piece of wood once sweeten the water,
thus giving proof of its power?

He has also given some people the knowledge,
so that they may draw credit from his mighty works.
He uses these for healing and relieving pain;
the druggist makes up a mixture from them.
Thus, there is no end to his activities;
thanks to him, well-being exists throughout the world.

My child, when you are ill, do not rebel,
but pray to the Lord and he will heal you.
Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Offer incense and a memorial of fine flour,
make as rich an offering as you can afford.

Then let the doctor take over - the Lord created him
too - do not let him leave you, for you need him.
There are times when good health depends on
doctors. For they, in their turn, will pray the Lord
to grant them the grace to relieve and to heal,
and so prolong your life.
Whoever sins in the eyes of his Maker,
let such a one come under the care of the doctor!

(Sirach 38:1-1 5)

This passage from the ancient book of Sirach, for Catholics a part of the Old Testament, is surely remarkable, for it contains several fundamental truths about the relationship between sickness, prayer, and the medical professions. We are to pray for healing, we are to honour and make use of those involved in the field of medicine, and they are to pray for their work to bring healing. God also heals through the work of the medical professions and through medicines.

Thank God for doctors, dentist, nurses, and other members of the medical professions. How horrified many of us would feel if we were informed that henceforth we would have to face life without being able to see a doctor or a dentist! And what a sobering thought it is to remember that some of the poor of this world do more or less face life without them. As I sit in the dentists chair, I do thank God for dentists; I do admire their skill - I myself would have made a most incompetent one. And I do ask God to bless the dentist's work, including his or her work on me!

There seem to be basically three different attitudes among Christians with regard to the relationship between sickness, prayer, and medicine. There are many Christians who in fact think that the healing of physical sickness is the work of the medical professions and not a matter for prayer. There are secondly a small number of Christians who apparently believe that all healing should really come through prayer and that ideally at least Christians should not have to make use of medical help. Finally, there are the Christians who consider that we should seek healing both through prayer and through the help of the medical professions. Let us examine these three approaches - which doubtless contain variations within each group.

(I). In view of the express command of Jesus to his disciples to pray for the healing of the sick (cf Luke 9:1 and 10:8; Mark 16:18) and the example of the New Testament church as seen in the Acts of the Apostles, it is very surprising that so many Christians today think that at least physical healing is only a matter for the medical professions and that praying for healing has no place in our scientific age. it is for me even more surprising to meet clergy who adopt this view.

This approach not only goes against the New Testament, it is also contrary to the tradition of the Church, and it seems to ignore the undoubted fact that many Christians are being healed in answer to prayer in our own times. The result of this approach is that some people die who would have survived if there had been serious prayer for healing, and that some people remain ill who could be healed through prayer.

(2). The attitude that Christians really ought not to need to go to the doctor, that if they had sufficient faith they would be healed through prayer, can lead to major tragedies. People could die who might recover if they received medical attention. Depressed people could commit suicide because they did not receive medication in time. Apparently in the USA a few diabetics die each year because they stop taking insulin after prayer, thinking that if they have enough faith they need not take medication. Needless to say, this approach can do much to bring the healing ministry of prayer into disrepute.

(3). The third approach which believes in both praying for healing and making use of the medical professions, harmonising the two as the circumstances demand, is the subject of the rest of this chapter. The need to harmonise and to increase the co-operation between the prayer side and the medical side of healing is one of the main tasks of the future. As I write, I remember a case of such co-operation which was truly blessed. A little girl, Natalia, aged nine months, was thought to be dying in the intensive care ward of a London teaching hospital. The mother of the child asked members of our healing team to go and pray with the child. I remember feeling rather awe-struck as, dressed in a white gown and with a mask on, I prayed over the little child who was sedated. The bed seemed to be largely surrounded with machines connected to the child by tubes. There were several nurses and a doctor in the room. For the next two or three weeks one or other member of our healing team, including a medical doctor, prayed over that child every day. From the first day of our prayers she began to improve, but there were ups and downs, especially when the ventilation side was causing trouble. However she pulled through, and I last saw her as a little girl running around. It would be good to see more cases of co-operation of that kind.

I find myself full of admiration for the dedication and skill of many doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, whether working individually or as members of a team as in the case of Natalia in the intensive care ward, I know a paediatrician who having worked all day quite frequently stays up most of the night trying to save a new-born baby. I know nurses who are working heroically in caring for patients in scandalously under-staffed situations in hospitals. I remember the atmosphere of dedicated concentration in an operating theatre during major operations - during the last World War, I worked in London hospitals for a time. Let us give credit where credit is due!

However, dedicated medical attention by itself frequently does not seem to be enough. Medically speaking, it is often a mystery why one person gets better and another does not. And prayer for healing can often be part of the answer to that mystery. The turning point for Natalia came when the healing prayer ministry started.
There is a further consideration. Providing increasingly expensive medical care for our ageing population is causing growing financial and practical problems. As we know, suffering people are having to wait for a year or more in many cases for hip or other operations. This situation may well get worse - and, of course, things are far, far worse for most people in the Third World. The growth of the healing ministry of prayer will certainly help to relieve the problems of an over-burdened National Health Service. I am sure that the prayer ministry of our healing teams has unquestionably saved medical expenditure.

To start with a personal example: I myself have caused the National Health Service little expense for over a decade now. I am sure this is linked with the fact that I pray for my own healing and get others to do so for me, with the result that I rarely have to go to my doctor. Of course, I may have a major operation next year, because anybody may have to do so. But I believe it remains true that in general more prayer for healing will help to reduce demands on the overstretched medical services.

Our prayer for healing should frequently include prayer for the medical professions. If God heals someone directly in answer to prayer, without the need for medical attention, so much the better. But obviously on very many occasions that is not the case. Often we need to pray that the sick person should receive the right medical help, that the doctors may diagnose the sickness correctly, that the right treatment or medication may be given, that they may be effective, and that the patient may be protected from any harmful side-effects.

It has been the experience of many teams praying for healing that in general, where there is authentic prayer for healing, the medical side of things tends to go better. Obviously this does not mean that everyone is physically healed when there is sufficient prayer. There must have been many thousands of Christians praying for David Watson's healing from cancer, and he died. However, in addition to the fruits of peace and spiritual healing - which is always the most important area of healing - prayer for healing can help the physical side of things by relieving pain and distress or producing a remission, even when there is not a complete physical cure.

I remember the case of a married lady in her forties with terminal cancer of the abdomen, whom we visited in a London hospital. The only treatment they could give her at that stage was pain-killers, and they were not being very effective. There was much prayer for healing for her in more than one prayer group. When we prayed for her she felt something like an electric current going through her abdomen, and the pain disappeared on the spot. We were still in the ward when the trolley came round with the painkillers, and to the surprise of the nurse she declined to take any - and she never needed them again. We wondered for a time whether the cancer was healed, but it was not. She died very peacefully about a month later with no pain at all. The consultant said that the absence of pain was medically speaking totally inexplicable. I have always in my mind linked the healing from pain which she received with the very considerable amount of prayer behind her.

I think of another person, a young mother called P., whose first child was then just a few months old. She developed a very serious cancer condition in the neck area, and medically speaking the outlook was very grim. Members of our healing team prayed with her on many occasions, and there was much prayer for her in her family and in the parish. She received radium and chemotherapy treatment in hospital. The treatment was very surprisingly effective and P. is now, some years later, back at work in the bank and has no cancer. The doctors and medical staff gathered together to give her a very special send-off when she left hospital. One cannot say that P. was healed only through prayer, for obviously the medical treatment was very important. But we do find that medical treatment is more likely to be exceptionally successful when there is much prayer behind it.

Of course there have been the many cases when we have prayed with all our heart for physical healing and for the medical treatment, and things have not gone well physically. There are times when we cannot point to any success at all at the physical level - indeed at any level - in answer to prayer. However, I have never regretted having prayed in these cases. In a way, our job is to pray and results are God's business. In any case we shall never fully know the outcome of our prayers until by the grace of God we get to heaven. Then doubtless we shall have many surprises. Perhaps we shall discover that sometimes when we thought our prayers had failed to help, they were used powerfully. And sometimes when our prayers seemed to have been 'successful', the person would have got better just as well in any case. It may be, for example, that when our prayers failed to relieve pain, they may have been used by God to prevent the pain getting much worse.

Praying for protection against harmful side-effects of medication or other treatment can be very important - as also for the healing of harmful side-effects. In our healing teams we seem to have had especially good results in praying for protection against the unpleasant side-effects of chemotherapy with cancer patients. Indeed, in one particular case the medical staff could not understand why a young lady was feeling no unpleasant side-effects after chemotherapy and why her hair was not falling out - the wig they had prepared for her was never used.

For many people a worrying aspect of much modern medicine is this whole question of the side-effects of medication. It is not all that rare for a medicine to be given to large numbers of people over a considerable number of years - and then for it to be withdrawn or used very sparingly because of the harmful side-effects. I remember trying to help a lady through prayer to come off Valium when medical opinion suddenly changed its attitude to the drug - it was not an easy time for her.

As is well known, quite a high proportion of elderly people who are taken into hospital go there not directly because of an illness but because of trouble caused by medication. Then there is the problem of people being given more and more medicines to counter the side-effects of other medicines. People's eyesight can be adversely affected. I know a person suffering from nervous fears who collapsed into a deep nervous breakdown when he took the first course of medication prescribed by his doctor for his fears. Because of these and other difficulties with medication, an increasing number of people are turning to more natural remedies for healing, such as the use of herbs. I myself would take rose-hip tea rather than an aspirin for a cold.

Against all this one must of course see the many people who are helped by medication, whose lives have been saved by it. We must also sympathise with doctors in their difficult task of trying to satisfy impatient people who are demanding more medicines to heal their ailments - and this in a very busy surgery where there is little time for each patient. Finally, the rest of us all make mistakes in our work at times, so we cannot expect doctors to be perfect.

However, all this for a Christian surely points in the direction of the desirability of renewing the practice and ministry of praying for healing. More prayer for healing would result in less need to go to doctors, less pressure of numbers in the surgery, less need to take medication or receive other treatment, less trouble with side-effects. I think that if Christians were more faithful to Our Lord's command to heal the sick through prayer, that would be a real blessing not only for the sick themselves but also for the medical services.

Another important dimension of the healing ministry of prayer is the praying done by doctors, nurses, and others involved in the medical services. In recent years I have got to know many doctors and nurses who pray very seriously for the healing of their patients and who have the conviction that their prayers make an important difference. I think of two members of our healing prayer team, an orthopaedic surgeon J., and his wife, D., who is the head of a therapy department in a large teaching hospital. Some years ago J., who was then working in a London hospital, felt inspired to pray one evening in their hospital prayer group that there would not be the usual casualties from car accidents, fights, muggings, etc., in their catchment area. When he arrived at his fracture clinic thirty-six hours later, he was greeted by the sister who said with amazement that there had been no new patients coming in during that period, instead of the usual dozen or so people. He saw this as a sign from God. Since then, he and his wife pray daily for their patients, for the staff of their departments, and for the people in the catchment areas from which they receive patients. D. finds that her department, with a staff of about thirty people, is running much more successfully since she dedicated it to Jesus; for example, the staff are happier and work better. D. prays with each patient as she treats them. They both have the impression that the medical treatment is in general more effective because of the prayers.

Then there is B., a midwife. She prays daily for her patients before she leaves for work in the morning, and she prays while delivering each baby. She finds that her mothers require stitching considerably less often than is normally the case. She attributes this fact to prayer and not to any special medical skill.

There is also E., a speech therapist, with a powerful gift of healing prayer. She finds that since she came into the Charismatic Renewal and the healing ministry of prayer, her patients in general make both quicker and greater progress.

Another member of our prayer for healing team is B., a consultant surgeon, who normally goes to Mass each morning before work. She prays for all her patients. As she scrubs up before the operation, she says the prayer: 'Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.' As she cuts the skin she does so 'in the name of the Lord'. Nurses tell her that she gets less bleeding with tonsil cases than other surgeons, which she attributes to prayer not skill. Nurses also tell her that 'people say that the patients receive from you more than a medical consultation'. B. tells how in an operation being performed on a man of 45 by her 'boss' in which she was assisting, the man began bleeding profusely and it would not stop. They could not give him a blood transfusion and the situation was very critical. B. began to pray with all her strength and the bleeding stopped, to the surprise of her boss who kept saying: 'I cannot understand why the bleeding stopped.'

Finally, there is J., who is a paediatrician, with a powerful gift of healing prayer. She regularly prays over the new-born babies and sometimes sees remarkable results. Once she woke up in the middle of the night seeing a mental picture of a blue baby, which she knew was a particular baby she was concerned about. So she prayed hard for the baby and in the mental picture the baby turned pink. Next day she discovered that is exactly what happened to the baby in the hospital at the precise time at which she had prayed. And the medical staff with the baby at the time were very surprised at the change and the recovery. J. was also once given by God the diagnosis of a very rare illness from which a baby was suffering. Subsequent investigation proved that she was right, and Europe's top specialist in that particular illness could not understand how J. had managed to diagnose it.

Of course there are many Christian doctors and nurses who pray for their patients and their healing without experiencing the dramatic results which the paediatrician J. quite frequently sees. However, the most important answers to prayer are not necessarily the most dramatic. The vital thing is surely that Christians in the medical services do pray in the way the Holy Spirit leads them for the patients and their healing. The results are God's business!

There is one more subject which needs to be treated at the end of this chapter. There are some Christians who consider that at any rate physical healing is normally a matter for the medical profession, not prayer, but who believe in turning to prayer if the situation is serious and the medical profession cannot help. I think this attitude is mistaken. I am of the opinion that it is normally good to start by praying for healing. If we do this sometimes we shall find that the sickness disappears and that medicine and medical attention are not necessary. However, in certain circumstances it is of course very important not to delay in seeking medical help, for example, if someone is bleeding profusely or in real danger of committing suicide. But in these cases, pray on the way to the doctor or the hospital.

Obviously praying for healing must never stand in the way of people receiving the medical help they ought to have. Sometimes the most important thing we have to do is to tell someone to see a doctor. However, the great majority of people who come to us for prayer for healing have already seen doctors or psychiatrists. They come to us because those in the medical profession cannot be of much help. They turn to the only healer who is all powerful, Jesus.

Chapter 3: Praying for Healing and the Sacraments

The Church itself is the fundamental sacrament: it is also the 'sacrament of universal salvation' (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium no. 48). The Church as the Body of Christ is called to continue Christ's healing mission. Everything in the Church should in one way or another participate in this work of salvation, this work of healing. Canon law, curial offices, church bazaars, church buildings and all that happens within them should contribute in one way or another to the Church's work of salvation, its ministry of healing - and if anything is not contributing, then there is something wrbng with it.

The traditional seven sacraments of the Church participate in a special way in the healing ministry of the church. They are all of them channels through which flow the healing love of Jesus. Baptism signifies the passage from darkness into light, the entry into God's Kingdom, the healing of original sin. Confirmation by strengthening and empowering us helps to heal our weakness. Marriage can be and should be for the spouses a deeply healing experience, and their home should be a place where all who enter receive healing of one kind or another. The Sacrament of Orders can and should be not only a healing experience for the priest himself, but also help him to be a source of healing love for others in every aspect of his priestly ministry. The healing qualities of the remaining sacraments I will now treat at greater length.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation

The Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation is referred to in the official introduction to the rite (no. 7) as 'this sacrament of healing'. It is a channel for the healing of sin, for the receiving of God's forgiveness, for reconciliation with God and our neighbours.

it is a pity that in recent years many Catholics have more or less turned their back on this sacrament, thus depriving themselves of an important source of healing. We are all sinners, and we all need to repent, to turn away from sin towards God and the things of God. Indeed, we should repent daily - and of course repentance should not be confined to the sacrament of penance. However, the sacrament can help to focus and deepen our repentance, especially if we periodically - and not too infrequently - confess our sins to a priest and receive absolution. Confession has its own special sacramental grace, and who has not felt spiritually lighter and less burdened as they walk away after receiving absolution?

However, confession is not magic. We do not automatically receive the grace of the sacrament regardless of our dispositions. If we are to receive the full benefit of this sacrament, we need to prepare ourselves seriously, to be truly sorry for our sins, to want really to avoid sin in the future, and to call on the mercy of the Lord with all our mind and heart.

In his excellent small book, The Power in Penance (Ave Maria Press, 1972), Father Michael Scanlon TOR suggests that the priest should often pray for healing and strengthening after giving absolution. I have found as a priest that people in general welcome a prayer for healing and strengthening after receiving absolution. Such prayer will normally concentrate on spiritual and emotional healing, but it can also include physical healing. Sick people in hospital have often warmly welcomed the offer to pray for the healing of their physical sickness after confession - and physical improvement has sometimes followed. It seems that not so infrequently God chooses to heal people physically after they have confessed their sins.

One further point about confession: the sharing with another human being of our weaknesses, trials, temptations, and sins can be a very healing experience. It can be a great relief to free the bottled up guilt and get it off one's chest. For me personally it is a source of peace that there is no conscious area of my past, however shameful or dark or humiliating, that I have not shared with a confessor. And the humbling of ourselves which such sharing requires is part of the healing process. Furthermore, a wise confessor is able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discern our needs and give wise advice. This wise counselling is normally a necessary part of the process of inner healing which we all need.

All this emphasises the need for the confessor and the penitent to pray seriously to the Holy Spirit for light, love, and healing before the confession. We should expect the Holy Spirit to come with power when this sacrament is celebrated - even though we may not always feel the power. We shall see more of this power and healing as we pray more truly: 'Come, Holy Spirit.'

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. (Mark 6:13)

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
(James 5.14-16)

Pope Paul VI in the
Apostolic Constitution introducing the official rite for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick links this sacrament with the above passages in the New Testament, especially with the passage from James. Given these clear references in the New Testament to the anointing with oil for healing, it is not surprising that there have always been Christians down the centuries who continued to anoint the sick with oil as they prayed for healing. What is surprising however is that greater use has not been made of this New Testament practice. There have been sections of the Protestant world which ceased anointing the sick with oil for healing. And for centuries Catholics of the Latin Rite only gave this anointing to the dying, thus severely limiting the use made of this sacrament. Let us thank God that in our own times the anointing of the sick with oil for healing is becoming more widespread again, both among Protestants and Catholics.

It is important to realise that the administration and use made of this sacrament has varied very considerably during the history of the Catholic Church - and doubtless there will be further changes. Until the beginning of the ninth century the stress seems to have been on healing, especially physical healing. The bishop or priest blessed the oil, which the faithful often took home with them, anointing themselves or each other as the need arose. The main purpose of the sacrament was seen as the healing of the sick. From the beginning of the ninth century there was a move towards limiting the task of anointing to the clergy, and the sacrament was increasingly seen as a spiritual help for the dying, which included the forgiveness of sins. So a sacrament for the healing of the sick became mainly the last anointing of the dying, Extreme Unction.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) made very important changes in the use of this sacrament, taking more into account the healing thrust of the New Testament texts and of the tradition of the first eight centuries. So the Sacrament of Extreme Unction had its name changed to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The official General Introduction of the Rites of Anointing and Viaticum (1972) gives us encouragement in the ministry of praying for healing. 'Part of the plan laid out by God's providence is that we should fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we may fulfil our role in human society and in the Church' (No. 3).

The following quotations from the same source will help people to understand the official teaching and instruction of the Catholic Church on this sacrament after Vatican II:

A return to physical health may follow the reception of this sacrament it it will be beneficial to the sick person's salvation. If necessary, the sacrament also provides the sick person with the forgiveness of sins and the completion of Christian penance. (No. 6)

Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament. (No. 8)

The sacrament may be repeated if the sick person recovers after being anointed and then again falls ill or if during the same illness the person's condition becomes more serious. (No. 9)

A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery. (No. 10)

Elderly people may be anointed if they have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present.
(No. 11)

In public and private catechesis, the faithful should be educated to ask for the sacrament of anointing and, as soon as the right time comes, to receive it with full faith and they should not follow the wrongful practice of delaying the reception of the sacrament. All who care for the sick should be taught the meaning and purpose of the sacrament.
(No. 13)

Some types of mental sickness are now classified as serious. Those who are judged to have a serious mental illness and who would be strengthened by the sacrament may be anointed (see No. 5). The anointing may be repeated in accordance with the conditions for other kinds of serious illness. (See No. 9). (No. 53)

The healing intention of this sacrament is clearly seen in the very beautiful prayer which the priest uses for the blessing of the oil when it has not been already blessed by the bishop:

God of all consolation
you chose and sent your Son to heal the world.
Graciously listen to our prayer of faith.
send the power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler,
into this precious oil, this soothing ointment,
this rich gift, this fruit of the earth.

Bless this oil
+ and sanctity it for our use.
Make this oil a remedy
for all who are anointed with it;
heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit,
and deliver them from every affliction.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.


In his excellent article on this sacrament in the Faith Alive series in the
Universe (No. 38, 1987), Father Christopher O'Donnell O CARM points out that a very unfortunate mis-translation in the English text of the Code of Canon Law - 'the editors have since admitted this serious mistake' - has led some priests to be too restrictive in the administration of this sacrament. The latin word 'periculum' (danger) has been translated 'danger of death'. But there are of course other dangers - dangers of going blind, deaf, paralysed, depressed, senile, etc. So some priests are wanting only to administer this sacrament when there is danger of death. It could be a very helpful thing to refer these priests to Father O'Donnell's article and point out the mis-translation.

May I make a plea for a more generous use of this sacrament? May I especially ask some of the Catholic clergy to reconsider their attitudes and practice, to break away from the pre-Vatican II mentality? I am often deeply saddened - and indeed I can feel angry -when I come across practising Catholics who could and should have received this sacrament but have not done so because the clergy have refrained from giving it. I think, for example, of numerous practising Catholics suffering seriously from depression for years to whom the clergy have failed to suggest that they could be anointed. Only yesterday a devout Catholic man told me of his struggle over years to recover from the serious side-effects of the chemotherapy given him for cancer. He praised the kindness of the Catholic chaplain in the hospital. The chaplain however had never suggested that he could be anointed. If we believe in the power of prayer, if we take seriously the prayers for healing in the rite of anointing, if we believe in the power of the sacraments, then surely we must realise that this man's struggle - and the struggle of many others - to regain his health could well have been greatly helped by the receiving of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Jesus in his infinite love and wisdom has given us this wonderful healing sacrament for helping and healing sick people. And we frequently leave the seriously sick struggling and suffering with an illness without giving them the help of this sacrament. May Jesus forgive us!

The problem however is not only one of the preVatican II approach of some of the clergy (and the laity) and the mis-translation into English of canon law. There is also the factor of the shortage of clergy, which is sometimes very acute. If a priest has far too much to do, he inevitably cannot do his job properly - and many overburdened priests are managing much better than I would do in their circumstances! The excellent article on the anointing of the sick in the New Dictionary of Theology (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1987) makes the point clearly: 'A conflict results from the Vatican Council's encouragement to receive the sacrament yet an insufficient number of priestly ministers to make it available.' This article envisages the possibility that lay people could be allowed to administer this sacrament, a point also made by two Jesuit priests: 'Just as lay people are once again becoming ministers of the Eucharist, they may also again become ministers of the Sacrament of the Sick' (page 19, To Heal as Jesus Healed, by Barbara Leahy Schlemon, Dennis Linn SJ and Matthew Linn SJ, Ave Maria Press, 1978). It is not difficult to see that if certain doctors, nurses, and parish workers were able to administer this sacrament, then many people who at present die or suffer without receiving it would be able to be anointed. For instance, dying people brought into a hospital could be immediately anointed by a nurse, when a priest could not get there in time. There is also the fact that people are understandably reluctant to make calls on the time and energy of over-stretched clergy, when they would not hesitate to call in an authorized lay person. This would perhaps be especially true when it is a question of repeating the anointing, which sometimes is both highly desirable and entirely permissible. Just as the introduction of lay ministers of the Eucharist has been a great blessing in both allowing sick people to receive communion more often and in relieving the over-burdened clergy of unnecessary work, so I think that the return to lay administration of this sacrament would be a similar blessing all round.

A practice which is being found very fruitful in some parishes is that of regularly holding services in which the sick of the parish receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick together - rather like the services of anointing in Lourdes. These services can be beautiful occasions on which the parish as a whole prays for its sick members and expresses its loving concern for them. The service can be followed by refreshments and the giving of presents.

Needless to say the wider use of this sacrament should not be carried to excess. Obviously the sacrament should not be trivialised or administered indiscriminately. However it is important not to be over-scrupulous. As a priest I would prefer to come before the judgement seat of God having given this sacrament too easily rather than having been too restrictive. After all, if it is by mistake given too easily, no great harm is done. But it is surely no small thing to deprive a genuinely needy person of the help this sacrament can give. In the USA the bishops have officially included such things as 'spiritual aridity' as something for which a person can be anointed. Let us not be too hesitant on this side of the Atlantic!

The Holy Eucharist

The celebration of the Holy Eucharist is in the first place for the purpose of giving thanks and glory to God. Asking for things for creatures is secondary to the theme of praise. However the celebration of the Holy Eucharist is also the most powerful form of intercession. And prayer for healing in one form or another is an important theme in every Mass.

All Christians believe in praying for spiritual healing, which is of course the most important area of healing. However, many Christians, including quite a few Catholics, say that they do not believe in praying for physical healing! There are even Catholic priests who celebrate Mass daily, with all the texts in the Mass which pray for healing, and yet apparently do not believe in praying for physical healing! There is the contrast between the liturgy, which is rich in prayers for healing, and the intellectual ideas of many Catholics, who are either very sceptical about praying for physical healing or simply do not believe in it.

Let us now turn to a few healing texts in the liturgy of the Mass, some of which explicitly include physical healing.

In one of the personal liturgical prayers of the priest before communion, I frequently say: 'Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy I eat your body and drink your blood. Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and body.'

The opening prayer of the Mass of Our Lady, which I and many other priests celebrate on most Saturdays, commences 'Lord God, give to your people the joy of continual health in mind and body.'

As Father Jim McManus CSSP points out in his excellent book, The Healing Power of the Sacraments (Ave Maria Press, 1984), quite a few of the post-communion prayers ask for healing, for example, the one from the Monday of the First Week in Lent: 'Lord, through this sacrament may we rejoice in your healing power and experience your love in mind and body.'

The most important healing text in the Mass, however, is surely the prayer we all say immediately before communion: 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.' (The earlier translation read: 'But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.' The Church changed the 'my soul' to 'I' precisely to include physical healing.)

There are other prayers in the Mass which refer directly to health and healing. 'You were sent to heal the contrite: Lord, have mercy' (from the Penitential Rite). One of the blessings for Holy Water reads: 'Lord God Almighty, creator of life, of body and soul, we ask you to bless this water: as we use it in faith forgive our sins and save us from all illness and the power of evil.'

However, there are other prayers in the Mass which are essentially healing prayers, which include healing without using the words 'healing' and 'health'. For example, the words from the consecration: 'It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven'; the prayers for the repose of the departed: 'Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day'; 'The peace of the Lord be with you always'; 'May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit' (Eucharistic Prayer 2).

The Mass is in the first place a great prayer of praise, of giving glory and adoration to God. It is also however a great prayer for healing - healing at every level, the individual and the community, the Church and the world, the levels of the spirit, the mind, and the body. So let us preach and teach more about this healing dimension of the Mass; let us as we participate in the Mass be more aware of this healing dimension; let us at Mass implore Jesus to fill us and others with his healing love. Especially when we go to communion let us ask Jesus to fill us with his healing love, for in communion we receive the same Jesus who nearly two thousand years ago went about Israel healing the sick, and his healing touch has lost none of its power. 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.' Every communion can and should surely be a healing, strengthening occasion. I think it can be good in general when we receive communion to pray for the healing, strengthening and protecting of spirit, mind, and body. Certainly the spiritual healing is the most important area - but why leave out the mind and the body? Is Jesus now no longer interested in healing minds and bodies? Is he no longer capable of healing them? Where is our faith in his love and power?

Notice that I also suggested praying for strengthening and protecting. Modern medicine is more and more interested in the prevention of sickness. Should not our prayers in connection with healing include the dimensions of strengthening and protecting? Why wait until something has gone wrong before we call upon the healing power of Jesus?

Sister Briege McKenna osc, in her remarkable book Miracles Do Happen (Veritas Publications, 1987), explains how, as she goes round the world her healing ministry is increasingly centred on the healing power of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. She was amazed when at a Mass attended by many poor people in Latin America, she saw two children receive miraculous physical healings, and this gave her a new awareness of the healing power of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. She tells of a woman who had a large stomach cancer which caused great swelling. Sister Briege said to the woman:

Go to meet Jesus in the Eucharist. While I can't tell anyone they will be healed the way they want because tin not God, Jesus will supply you with the strength to face whatever is on your road of life. If he is going to bring you through the door of death, he will give you the grace to go through that door without this awful fear. And if you are to live, he will give you the grace to live.

When the woman went to communion she prayed: 'I know you are really here. Today when you come into me, take away this fear. Heal me if you want, but please do something for me." The woman was in fact healed of the cancer. 'I had no sooner put the Host on my tongue and swallowed it than I felt as though something was burning my throat and down into my stomach. I looked down at my stomach and the growth was gone.' (page 67)

Sister Briege also tells of how people are sometimes healed when they are blessed with the Holy Eucharist. A young Mormon girl in Hawaii was present at a healing service, and when the crowd was blessed with the Holy Eucharist her painful and deformed hands were healed. (page 113)

For every case of a remarkable physical miracle such as the two recounted above, there are surely thousands of people who regularly look to the Lord in the Holy Eucharist to heal, strengthen, and sustain them at every level - and the Lord answers their prayers in ways which go well beyond what was to be expected at the purely human level. I think of a good friend of mine who is the co-ordinator of a large prayer group and whose lungs have been seriously sick for years. What greatly surprises the doctors is that someone with her lungs can live the very active and fruitful life she does. The healing and strengthening power of Jesus in the Eucharist is surely in her case a large part of the explanation.


At the end of this chapter on the sacraments it seems appropriate to write briefly on sacramentals, especially one of them. It is in the Catholic tradition to use sacramentals such as holy water, holy medals, holy statues, holy pictures, icons, beads, scapulars, blessed salt, and blessed oil. It can be good to make use of sacramentals for healing and protection insofar as they are found helpful. However, it is important to remember that it is Jesus who heals and protects, not the holy water, the medals, or other sacramentals. It is also important to avoid any suggestion of magic or superstition: people are healed because Jesus wants to heal them, not because they possess a particular statue or a holy medal.

There is one sacramental which I want particularly to mention, since many Catholics are finding it helpful in connection with healing. There is in the Roman Ritual a blessing for olive oil (or other vegetable oil) which lay people can use for healing or other suitable purposes. The oil has to be blessed by a priest, but lay people can apply it to themselves or others. It can be good to anoint the sick part of the body with this oil as far as that is possible. And the anointing can be repeated as often as seems appropriate, for example, daily. I know of one case in which a man was healed of terminal cancer after being extensively anointed with this blessed oil. I know of another case in which an elderly woman regularly received relief from pain after the anointing. Yesterday a man told me that when he cannot sleep, he anoints himself with oil and sleep invariably follows quickly. Indeed, not infrequently we receive reports of good things happening after people have been anointed with this oil.
This blessed oil is sometimes referred to as the Oil of Gladness, to distinguish it from that used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Members of healing teams and others anointing people with this oil should, when necessary, clearly explain that it is not the Sabrament of the Sick.

Needless to say, the use of the blessed oil, like everything else in the healing ministry of prayer, is subject to any diocesan or other regulations which may have been made by the competent authority in the Church.

Since very few priests possess a copy of the complete Roman Ritual, it will be useful to give here the text of this ancient blessing of oil:

Blessing of Oil, for use by Laity

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
Response: Who made heaven and earth.


God's creature, oil,
I cast out the demon from you by God the Father
Almighty, who made heaven and earth and sea
and all that they contain.
Let the adversary's power, the devil's legions,
and all Satan's attacks and machinations
be dispelled and driven afar
from this creature oil.

Let it bring health in body and mind to all who
use it, in the name of God
+ the Father Almighty,
and our Lord Jesus Christ
+ his Son, and the Holy Spirit + the Advocate,
as well as in the love of the same Jesus Christ
our Lord, who is coming to judge both the living
and the dead and the world by fire.

Response: Amen.

Lord, heed my prayer,
Response: And let my cry be heard by you.
The Lord be with you.
Response: And also with you.

Let us pray.

Lord God Almighty, before whom the hosts of angels stand in awe
and whose heavenly service we acknowledge,
may it please you to regard favourably
and bless and hallow this creature oil,
which by your power has been pressed
from the juice of olives.
You have ordained it for anointing the sick,
so that, when they are made well,
they may give thanks to you,
the living and true God.
Grant we pray,
that those who use this oil,
which we are blessing
+ in your name,
may be delivered from all suffering,
all infirmity, and all wiles of the enemy
Let it be a means of averting any kind of adversity
from man, made in your image and redeemed
by the precious blood of your Son,
so that he may never again suffer the sting
of the ancient serpent, through Christ our Lord.

Response: Amen.

The oil is sprinkled with holy water)

This Blessing is taken from the Roman Ritual, translated by Philip Weller (Milwaukee, Bruce, 1964, page 573).

Chapter 4: Does God Always Want to Heal?
Those who are not Healed

As we saw in Chapter One, Jesus commanded his disciples to heal the sick in his name: '
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal And they departed and went through the villages preaching the gospel and healing everywhere' (Luke 9:111). Jesus also promised that: 'these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover' (Mark 16:17).,

Does this mean that Jesus wants to heal every sickness in this life? Some Christians would reply 'yes' to that question. They would say that: 'by his cross you are saved and by his stripes you are healed' (cf Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24). We know that God wants to save everyone. They would say that in the same way God wants to heal every sickness in this life. Both are for them the fruit of the Atonement. It must be said that some of the Christians who take this line are very successful in their healing ministry, that remarkable healings take place in their healing services. They preach with great faith and fervour the message that Jesus wants to heal all sickness, and quite a few people are healed, including sometimes remarkable physical healings. This approach has the advantage of being single-minded in its aim - to heal every sickness in everyone.

However the 'Jesus-always-wants-to-heal-allsickness' approach has its disadvantages. What happens to the people who are not healed? If someone is told that Jesus certainly wants to heal his or her terminal cancer or blindness, and the cancer or the blindness is not healed, how does the sick person feel? Surely they will often either feel guilty: 'Jesus wants to heal me. I am not healed. It must be due to my lack of faith or sinfulness'; or they will blame those who prayed for their healing: 'they did not pray enough, or their ministry is not powerful enough'; or they will lose faith in Jesus: 'I can no longer believe in this Jesus who has not healed me'; or they will simply turn their back on all praying for healing of any kind. I can remember a case in which an Anglican vicar complained bitterly that the faith of a dying parishioner which he had been carefully nurturing was shattered after some charismatic Christians came and prayed over her for healing, giving the impression that Jesus wanted to heal her physically. She was not healed physically and went through a total crisis of faith.

Experiences of this kind may help to explain why some Christians, especially some of the clergy, can be put off all praying for healing. Perhaps they have experienced cases in which people appear to have been harmed or really have been harmed rather than helped by prayer for healing. If it is claimed that Jesus certainly wants to heal every sickness in this life, then people who are not healed can come away from a healing service confused, discouraged, and with weakened faith.

The advocates of the 'Jesus-always-wants-to-heal-every-sickness' approach also have to face honestly the fact that even with the most powerful healing ministries the great majority of terminally ill people die, the great majority of blind people remain blind, the great majority of people with schizophrenia continue to have schizophrenia. Indeed we rightly consider it very wonderful when a small minority of them are miraculously healed. So what are we to think of the many people who are not healed at that level? If Jesus wants to heal every sickness in this life, then even the most powerful healing ministries are dismal failures. For every person at a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service who got up from their wheelchair and walked, there must have been hundreds who could not do so. The Jesus-always-wants-to-heal-every-sickness approach simply does not seem to stand up to the test of what really happens even in the most fervent Christian communities. And this is especially true if we consider those who are seriously handicapped physically or mentally from birth, very few of whom are miraculously healed.

There is a further problem with this approach. If one concentrates on praying for the healing of the terminal cancer, for example, then one surely cannot prepare the sick person spiritually for death in an adequate manner. Surely the time comes when the right thing to pray for is a peaceful and blessed death, not the miraculous healing of cancer. I have frequently started by praying for a physical healing miracle with a seriously sick person, and later as their health declined have changed the general orientation to praying for a blessed death. But if Jesus always wants to heal sickness in this life, then obviously one should go on praying for the physical miracle to the very end, which may not be helpful to the dying person. (Everyone admits of course that there comes a time for a person in ripe old age to pass peacefully into eternity with Jesus. The problem we are dealing with here is that of people who have not reached that stage in their lives.)

Is there not another possibility somewhere between the 'Jesus-always-wants-to-heal' approach outlined above and the current practice of most Christian congregations of not praying for physical healing, or of praying for it in a very hall-hearted way? Yes, there is. It is the approach which has normally been adopted in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal - and not only there - and which Francis MacNutt describes in his important books: Healing (1974) and The Power to Heal (1977), both published by the Ave Maria Press in the USA.

In this approach Christians are encouraged to pray seriously for healing, including normally, physical healing, in obedience to the instructions of Jesus. But it is recognised that Jesus may not want to heal every physical and mental sickness in this life. Jesus may have a purpose of redemptive suffering in an illness for a time or more than a time. In such cases not only will the sickness not be healed in answer to prayer, but the person receiving prayer should be willing to accept the sickness and the suffering it involves.

Catholics sometimes feel in a dilemma over the question of sickness and prayer. Should they adopt the line that Jesus always wants to heal and that we must simply pray with ever greater faith and perseverance for healing? Or should they see sickness as a suffering to be accepted and offered up in prayer for redemptive purposes, remembering the words of St. Paul: 'Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church' (Colossians 1:24)? I think that the answer to the apparent dilemma is that we need to use and harmonise the two approaches, because neither by itself is right for every situation. We should normally start by praying for the healing of spirit, mind, and body. Jesus always wants to heal us more spiritually, so we know that when we pray for healing he always wants us to receive some healing, at least at the spiritual level. However, I think Jesus frequently also wants us to receive healing at the levels of the mind and the body. So we should normally also pray for mental and physical healing with faith and perseverance, but realising that Jesus may not want to answer our prayer in the way we first hoped.

I have over the years prayed for thousands of people for physical healing who apparently received no physical healing. I have prayed for hundreds of people who experienced some physical improvement - even though often it was only small. I have never regretted praying for physical healing for those who apparently received no physical healing. I always also prayed for their spiritual and emotional/mental healing. Often they received great peace even when there was no physical improvement. If I had not been willing normally to pray for physical healing, then those who in fact did receive some physical healing would not have done so. I have never reproached myself about praying for physical healing which, did not happen. I would however have felt bad about not having tried, because then I would wonder whether if I had, perhaps that person would have received some physical healing, some relief from pain.

Some people in the healing ministry are more gifted than I am in listening to God, and God will show them more often whether he wants to heal someone physically or not. So their prayer for the sick will be led more directly by 'words' from above. People who are more gifted in this field should thank God for their gifts and use them. However, no one receives a 'word' for every case; and these 'words' are at any rate not infallible. Moreover, one cannot easily say to someone who asks you to pray for the healing of cancer in their child: 'No I will not pray for the healing of the cancer.' However, if God seems to be showing us something, then that can influence the balance and general direction of our prayer.

For me the truth that our sufferings, including suffering from illness can through God's grace be redemptive is a very important part of the good news of the Christian gospel. Suffering is not something to speak lightly about, especially when it is severe. The idea of severe suffering which is meaningless and fruitless is a very terrible one. The New Testament tells us that by the grace of God our sufferings, united with the sufferings of Jesus, can be redemptive, can be very fruitful for ourselves and others, can be very meaningful. (See
Colossians 1:24 quoted above. See also Hebrews 12: 3-11; James 1: 2-4, and 12; 1 Peter I: 6-7, and 4: 12-13.) So it can be important to tell a person that their sufferings can be meaningful and redemptive, while .at the same time we pray for healing of the sickness and the pain. This knowledge can help them to bear the suffering and can bring them peace. I think of a woman suffering much from a rare arthritic condition over whom several of us have prayed for healing. She continues to suffer much physical pain, especially when she reduces the steroids and other drugs. If we had not prayed perhaps she would have suffered still more from the illness and from the side-effects of the drugs. We must certainly go on praying for the healing of the sickness and pain. But it has been important to let her know that her sufferings can be, are being, fruitful redemptively, and to pray that God will give her the strength to bear them.

In the healing ministry of our prayer group in Cockfosters (London, England) we have seen cancer patients healed physically in answer to prayer, and we have seen people dying from cancer receive great courage and peace, great spiritual healing. I think of John - not his real name - a medical doctor in his thirties, with a young family, who was lying paralysed in his bed at home with cancer in his back, and his wife had been told that he was expected to die within three months. Another medical doctor asked a woman in our healing team if she would go and pray with John for healing. So she and a few others visited John and prayed over him on numerous occasions - I myself was little involved in this ministry. John is now back at work as a doctor in a hospital, and he has been told by the specialists that he is free from cancer - and you should see the wonderful smile on his face as he tells you about his healing.

Alongside John I think of James - not his real name. James was also in his thirties, the father of young children, and he also had terminal cancer. Our healing team also prayed over James for healing on numerous occasions. James came back to the sacraments, received wonderful spiritual healing, was given great peace and strength - and went to live with Jesus in heaven.

One thing, I think, especially needs to be said about John and James. We cannot say that the healing John received from Jesus was more important than the healing James received from him. God alone knows the answer to that question. I think that Jesus healed John in the way he wanted to, and that he also healed James in the way he wanted to. As Kathryn Kuhlman used to say, it is part of the mystery of God's loving providence why one person is physically healed and another is not. As she pointed out, sometimes a person with little or no faith is physically healed, while a Christian with great faith is not. We simply have to accept the mystery of God's loving providence for each individual.

I think that many people with terminal illnesses are not healed in answer to prayer simply because the right time has come for that person to go to Jesus in heaven, because he or she has finished the work which God gave them to do on earth. 'Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them' (Psalm 139(138):16). This is perhaps the place to remember that death for the Christian is the passage to the fuller life with Jesus, that all physical healing is in one sense temporary, and that none of us will be perfectly heated all round until we are with Jesus in heaven.

Life in heaven is very much better than life on earth. When we pray for the healing of terminal illnesses we do so in so far as the person has not finished the work God may want him or her to do on earth. We are not trying to keep people out of heaven for a day longer than God wants. St. Paul, writing to the Phillippians from prison, when it was uncertain whether he would be put to death or not, put things in the right perspective:

For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell, I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joyin the faith. (Phillippians 1.21-5)

Some writers have objected that the redemptive suffering alluded to in the New Testament is not that caused by sickness, but the sufferings of persecution which come from being a Christian. So they conclude that the sufferings caused by illness are not to be seen as redemptive, as part of the cross Jesus asks us to take up. I would disagree with this view. I think the sufferings of St. Paul's illness in Galations (4:13) and Timothy's 'frequent ailments' (I Timothy 5:23) were redemptive and contributed to their spiritual growth. (Often we find today that people grow spiritually during the course of a serious illness.) I regard it as most important not to deprive people who have not been healed physically by prayer of the consolation of knowing that the sufferings caused by their illness can be, indeed are being, redemptive - even though we may rightly continue to pray for physical healing and the relief of suffering.

A last point: when it comes to praying for healing for people with terminal cancer and similar diseases, those of us in the healing ministry need to admit that there are always far more James than Johns, that outstanding physical healing miracles are the exception rather than the rule everywhere. Let us thank God for the outstanding miracles. Let us regret that they are absent in so many Christian congregations. I am sure that Jesus wants to work far more physical healing miracles in our churches. Let us encourage many more Christians to pray for physical healing. Let us hope and indeed expect to see far more physical healing miracles. Let us pray and fast for them. But let us not claim that a physical healing miracle should be normal in every case of serious physical sickness, that God wants to do physical healing miracles for everyone.

Copyright © 1989 Benedict M. Heron OSB

This Version: 2nd November 2001


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