The subject of death and dying is much on my mind at the moment, so I thought it might be helpful to post a helpful instruction on healing prayers put out by theCongregation for the Doctrine of Faith :
The longing for happiness, deeply rooted in the human heart, has always been accompanied by a desire to be freed from illness and to be able to understand the meaning of sickness when it is experienced. This is a human phenomenon, which in some way concerns every person and finds particular resonance in the Church, where sickness is understood as a means of union with Christ and of spiritual purification. Moreover, for those who find themselves in the presence of a sick person, it is an occasion for the exercise of charity. But this is not all, because sickness, like other forms of human suffering, is a privileged moment for prayer, whether asking for grace, or for the ability to accept sickness in a spirit of faith and conformity to God's will, or also for asking for healing.
Prayer for the restoration of health is therefore part of the Church's experience in every age, including our own. What in some ways is new is the proliferation of prayer meetings, at times combined with liturgical celebrations, for the purpose of obtaining healing from God. In many cases, the occurrence of healings has been proclaimed, giving rise to the expectation of the same phenomenon in other such gatherings. In the same context, appeal is sometimes made to a claimed charism of healing.
These prayer meetings for obtaining healing present the question of their proper discernment from a liturgical perspective; this is the particular responsibility of the Church's authorities, who are to watch over and give appropriate norms for the proper functioning of liturgical celebrations.
It has seemed opportune, therefore, to publish an Instruction, in accordance with canon 34 of the Code of Canon Law, above all as a help to local Ordinaries so that the faithful may be better guided in this area, though promoting what is good and correcting what is to be avoided. It was necessary, however, that such disciplinary determinations be given their point of reference within a well-founded doctrinal framework, to ensure the correct approach and to make clear the reasoning behind the norms. To this end, it has been judged appropriate to preface the disciplinary part of the Instruction with a doctrinal note.
I. DOCTRINAL ASPECTS
1. Sickness and healing: their meaning and value in the economy of salvation
«People are called to joy. Nevertheless each day they experience many forms of suffering and pain.» (1) Therefore, the Lord, in his promises of redemption, announces the joy of the heart that comes from liberation from sufferings (cf. Is 30:29; 35:10; Bar 4:29). Indeed, he is the one «who delivers from every evil» (Wis 16:8). Among the different forms of suffering, those which accompany illness are continually present in human history. They are also the object of man's deep desire to be delivered from every evil.
In the Old Testament, «it is the experience of Israel that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil.» (2) Among the punishments threatened by God for the people's unfaithfulness, sickness has a prominent place (cf. Dt 28:21-22, 27-29, 35). The sick person who beseeches God for healing confesses to have been justly punished for his sins (cf. Ps 37; 40; 106:17-21).
Sickness, however, also strikes the just, and people wonder why. In the Book of Job, this question occupies many pages. «While it is true that suffering has meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament... And if the Lord consents to test Job with suffering, he does it to demonstrate the latter's righteousness. The suffering has the character of a test.» (3)
Although sickness may have positive consequences as a demonstration of the faithfulness of the just person, and for repairing the justice that is violated by sin, and also because it may cause a sinner to reform and set out on the way of conversion, it remains, however, an evil. For this reason, the prophet announces the future times in which there will be no more disease and infirmity, and the course of life will no longer be broken by death (cf. Is 35:5-6; 65: 19-20).
It is in the New Testament, however, that the question of why illness also afflicts the just finds a complete answer. In the public activity of Jesus, his encounters with the sick are not isolated, but continual. He healed many through miracles, so that miraculous healings characterised his activity: «Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness» (Mt 9:35; cf. 4:23). These healings are signs of his messianic mission (cf. Lk 7:20-23). They manifest the victory of the kingdom of God over every kind of evil, and become the symbol of the restoration to health of the whole human person, body and soul. They serve to demonstrate that Jesus has the power to forgive sins (cf. Mk 2:1-12); they are signs of the salvific goods, as is the healing of the paralytic of Bethesda (cf. Jn 5:2-9, 19-21) and the man born blind (cf. Jn 9).
The first preaching of the Gospel, as recounted in the New Testament, was accompanied by numerous miraculous healings that corroborated the power of the Gospel proclamation. This had been the promise of the Risen Jesus, and the first Christian communities witnessed its realization in their midst: «These signs will accompany those who believe: ...they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover» (Mk 16:17-18). The preaching of Philip in Samaria was accompanied by miraculous healings: «Philip went down to a city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralysed and crippled people were cured» (Acts 8:5-7).
Saint Paul describes his own proclamation of the Gospel as characterized by signs and wonders worked by the power of the Holy Spirit: «For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to lead the Gentiles to obedience by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit» (Rom 15:18-19; cf. 1 Thes 1:5; 1 Cor 2:4-5). It would not be without foundation to suppose that these signs and wonders, manifestations of the power of God that accompanied the preaching of the Gospel, were constituted in large part by miraculous healings. Such wonders were not limited to St. Paul's ministry, but were also occurring among the faithful: «Does then the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you have heard preached?» (Gal 3:5).
The messianic victory over sickness, as over other human sufferings, does not happen only by its elimination through miraculous healing, but also through the voluntary and innocent suffering of Christ in his passion, which gives every person the ability to unite himself to the sufferings of the Lord. In fact, «Christ himself, though without sin, suffered in his passion pains and torments of every type, and made his own the sorrows of all men: thus he brought to fulfilment what had been written of him by the prophet Isaiah (cf. Is 53:4-5). (4)» But there is more: «In the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed... In bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the redemption. Thus each man in his suffering can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.» (5)
The Church welcomes the sick not only as the recipients of her loving care, but also by recognizing that they are called «to live their human and Christian vocation and to participate in the growth of the kingdom of God in a new and more valuable manner. The words of the Apostle Paul ought to become their approach to life or, better yet, cast an illumination to permit them to see the meaning of grace in their very situation: ‘In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church' (Col 1:24). Precisely in arriving at this realization, the Apostle is raised up in joy: ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake' (Col 1:24). (6)» It is a paschal joy, fruit of the Holy Spirit, and, like Saint Paul, «in the same way many of the sick can become bearers of the ‘joy inspired by the Holy Spirit in much affliction' (1 Thess 1:6) and be witnesses to Jesus' resurrection.» (7)
2. The desire for healing and prayer to obtain it
Presuming the acceptance of God's will, the sick person's desire for healing is both good and deeply human, especially when it takes the form of a trusting prayer addressed to God. Sirach exhorts his disciple: «My son, when you are ill, delay not, but pray to God, who will heal you» (Sir 38:9). A number of the Psalms also ask for healing (cf. Ps 6; 37; 40; 87).
Large numbers of the sick approached Jesus during his public ministry, either directly or through friends and relatives, seeking the restoration of health. The Lord welcomes their requests and the Gospels contain not even a hint of reproach for these prayers. The Lord's only complaint is about their possible lack of faith: «If you can! Everything is possible to one who has faith» (Mk 9:23; cf. Mk 6:5-6; Jn 4:48).
Not only is it praiseworthy for individual members of the faithful to ask for healing for themselves and for others, but the Church herself asks the Lord for the health of the sick in her liturgy. Above all, there is the sacrament «especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick.»(8) «The Church has never ceased to celebrate this sacrament for its members by the anointing and the prayer of its priests, commending those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them.»(9) Immediately before the actual anointing takes place, in the blessing of the oil, the Church prays: «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»(10) and then, in the first two prayers after the anointing, the healing of the sick person is requested.(11) Since the sacrament is a pledge and promise of the future kingdom, it is also a proclamation of the resurrection, when « there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, because the old order has passed away» (Rev 21:4). Furthermore, the Roman Missal contains a Mass pro infirmis in which, in addition to spiritual graces, the health of the sick is requested.(12)
In the De benedictionibus of the Rituale Romanum, there is an Ordo benedictionis infirmorum, in which there are various prayers for healing: in the second formulary of the Preces (13), in the four Orationes benedictionis pro adultis (14), in the two Orationes benedictionis pro pueris (15), and in the prayer of the Ritus brevior (16).
Obviously, recourse to prayer does not exclude, but rather encourages the use of effective natural means for preserving and restoring health, as well as leading the Church's sons and daughters to care for the sick, to assist them in body and spirit, and to seek to cure disease. Indeed, «part of the plan laid out in God's providence is that we should fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health...»(17)
3. The «charism of healing» in the New Testament
Not only did wondrous healings confirm the power of the Gospel proclamation in Apostolic times, but the New Testament refers also to Jesus' real and proper transmission of the power to heal illnesses to his Apostles and to the first preachers of the Gospel. In the call of the Twelve to their first mission, according to the accounts of Matthew and Luke, the Lord gave them «the power to drive out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and illness» (Mt 10:1; cf. Lk 9:1), and commanded them: «Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons» (Mt 10:8). In sending out the seventy-two disciples, the Lord charges them: «cure the sick» (Lk 10:9). The power to heal, therefore, is given within a missionary context, not for their own exaltation, but to confirm their mission.
The Acts of the Apostles refers in general to the wonders worked by them: «many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles» (Acts 2:43; cf. 5:12). These were amazing deeds that manifested the truth and the power of their mission. However, apart from these brief general references, the Acts of the Apostles refers above all to the miraculous healings worked by individual preachers of the Gospel: Stephen (cf. Acts 6:8), Philip (cf. Acts 8:6-7), and, above all, Peter (cf. Acts 3:1-10; 5:15; 9:33-34, 40-41) and Paul (cf. Acts 14:3, 8-10; 15:12; 19: 11-12; 20:9-10; 28: 8-9).
In the conclusion to the Gospel of Mark, as well as in the Letter to the Galatians, as seen above, the perspective is broadened. The wondrous healings are not limited to the activity of the Apostles and certain of the central figures in the first preaching of the Gospel. In this perspective, the references to the «charisms of healing» in 1 Cor 12:9, 28,30 acquire special importance. The meaning of charism is per se quite broad – «a generous gift» – and in this context it refers to «gifts of healing obtained.» These graces, in the plural, are attributed to an individual (cf. 1 Cor 12:9), and are not, therefore, to be understood in a distributive sense, as the gifts of healing received by those who themselves have been healed, but rather as a gift granted to a person to obtain graces of healing for others. This is given in uno Spiritu, but nothing is specified about how that person obtains these healings. It would not be farfetched to think that it happens by means of prayer, perhaps accompanied by some symbolic gesture.
In the Letter of James, reference is made to the Church's action, by means of the priests, directed toward the salvation – in a physical sense as well – of the sick. But this is not to be understood as a wondrous healing; it is different from the «charisms of healing» of 1 Cor 12:9. «Is anyone sick among you? He should call for the priests of the Church and have them pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer of faith will save the sick person and will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven» (Jas 5:14-15). This refers to a sacramental action: anointing of the sick with oil and prayer «over him» and not simply «for him,» as if it were only a prayer of intercession or petition; it is rather an efficacious action on the sick person.(18) The verbs «will save» and «will raise up» do not suggest an action aimed exclusively or predominantly at physical healing, but in a certain way include it. The first verb, even though the other times it appears in the Letter of James it refers to spiritual salvation (cf. 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20), is also used in the New Testament in the sense of «to heal» (cf. Mt 9:21; Mk 5:28, 34; 6:56; 10:52; Lk 8:48); the second, while having at times the sense of «to rise» (cf. Mt 10:8; 11:5; 14:2), is also used to indicate the action of «raising up» a person who is lying down because of illness, by healing the person in a wondrous fashion (cf. Mt 9:5; Mk 1:31; 9:27; Acts 3:7).
4. Prayers to obtain healing from God in the Church's tradition.
The Fathers of the Church considered it normal that believers would ask God not only for the health of their soul, but also for that of their body. With regard to the goods of life, health, and physical integrity, St. Augustine writes: «We need to pray that these are retained, when we have them, and that they are increased, when we do not have them.»(19) St. Augustine has also left us the testimony of a friend's healing, obtained through the prayers of a Bishop, a priest, and some deacons in his house.(20)
The same perspective is found in both the Eastern and Western liturgical rites. One of the post Communion prayers of the Roman Missal asks «...may the power of this heavenly gift take hold of our minds and bodies.»(21) In the liturgy of Good Friday, Christians are invited to pray to God the Father Almighty that he «may keep diseases away... and grant health to the sick.»(22) Among the texts that are most significant is that of the blessing of the oil of the sick, in which God is asked to pour forth his holy blessing so that all «those who are anointed with it may receive healing, in body, soul and spirit, and be delivered from all sadness, all weakness and suffering.»(23)
The expressions used in the prayers of the anointing of the sick in the Eastern Rites are very similar. For example, in the anointing of the sick in the Byzantine Rite, there is the prayer: «Holy Father, doctor of souls and bodies, you who sent your only begotten Son Jesus Christ to cure every sickness and to free us from death, heal also your servant from the infirmity of body and spirit that afflicts him, by the grace of your Christ.»(24) In the Coptic Rite, the Lord is invoked to bless the oil so that all who will be anointed with it will obtain health of spirit and body. Then, during the anointing of the sick person, the priests make mention of Jesus Christ who was sent into the world «to heal all sicknesses and to free from death» and ask God «to heal the sick person of the infirmities of body and to grant him the right path.»(25)
5. The «charism of healing» in the present-day contest
In the course of the Church's history there have been holy miracle-workers who have performed wondrous healings. The phenomenon was not limited to the Apostolic period; however, the so-called «charism of healing,» about which it seems appropriate to offer some doctrinal clarifications, does not fall within these phenomena of wonder-working. Instead, the present question concerns special prayer meetings organized for the purpose of obtaining wondrous healings among the sick who are present, or prayers of healing after Eucharistic communion for this same purpose.
There is abundant witness throughout the Church's history to healings connected with places of prayer (sanctuaries, in the presence of the relics of martyrs or other saints, etc.). In Antiquity and the Middle Age, such healings contributed to the popularity of pilgrimages to certain sanctuaries, such as that of St. Martin of Tours or the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela, as well as many others. The same also happens today at Lourdes, as it has for more than a century. Such healings, however, do not imply a «charism of healing,» because they are not connected with a person who has such a charism, but they need to be taken into account when we evaluate the above-mentioned prayer meetings from a doctrinal perspective.
With respect to prayer meetings for obtaining healing, an aim which even if not exclusive is at least influential in their planning, it is appropriate to distinguish between meetings connected to a «charism of healing,» whether real or apparent, and those without such a connection. A possible «charism of healing» can be attributed when the intervention of a specific person or persons, or a specific category of persons (for example, the directors of the group that promotes the meetings) is viewed as determinative for the efficacy of the prayer. If there is no connection with any «charism of healing,» then the celebrations provided in the liturgical books, if they are done with respect for liturgical norms, are obviously licit and often appropriate, as in the case of a Mass pro infirmis. If the celebrations do not respect liturgical law, they lack legitimacy.
In sanctuaries, other celebrations are held frequently which may not be aimed per se at specifically asking God for graces of healing, but in which, in the intentions of the organizers and participants, the obtaining of healing has an important part. With this purpose in mind, both liturgical and non-liturgical services are held: liturgical celebrations (such as exposition of the Blessed Sacrament with Benediction) and non-liturgical expressions of popular piety encouraged by the Church (such as the solemn recitation of the Rosary).
These celebrations are legitimate, as long as their authentic sense is not altered. For example, one could not place on the primary level the desire to obtain the healing of the sick, in a way which might cause Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to lose its specific finality, which is to «bring the faithful to recognize in the Eucharist the wonderful presence of Christ and to invite them to a spiritual union with him, a union which finds its culmination in sacramental Communion.»(26)
The «charism of healing» is not attributable to a specific class of faithful. It is quite clear that St. Paul, when referring to various charisms in 1 Corinthians 12, does not attribute the gift of «charisms of healing» to a particular group, whether apostles, prophets, teachers, those who govern, or any other. The logic which governs the distribution of such gifts is quite different: «All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who distributes to each one individually just as the Spirit choses» (1 Cor 12:11). Consequently, in prayer meetings organized for asking for healing, it would be completely arbitrary to attribute a «charism of healing» to any category of participants, for example, to the directors of the group; the only thing to do is to entrust oneself to the free decision of the Holy Spirit, who grants to some a special charism of healing in order to show the power of the grace of the Risen Christ. Yet not even the most intense prayer obtains the healing of all sicknesses. So it is that St. Paul had to learn from the Lord that «my grace is enough for you; my power is made perfect in weakness» (2 Cor 12:9), and that the meaning of the experience of suffering can be that «in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church» (Col 1:24).