PRAYER, FAITH AND HEALING
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.
—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Instructions on Prayers for Healing
As Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) indicated, the desire for healing is good, especially when it takes the form of prayer. Prayer is not merely the repetition of certain words, but a sincere communication uttered on the basis of faith; it is what Ratzinger termed "trusting prayer" and what has been described as "crying out to the Lord" (see Psalm 107). A prayer is more than a simple request for help, it is an acknowledgment of the need for God's assistance and an expression of desire to conform to and accept His will. Prayer does not necessarily result in a specific outcome that might have been envisioned when the prayer was uttered; the effect is that which God only knows and understands as the right response to the prayerful request. The desire for healing is one of the fundamental characteristics of human experience, and prayer is one of the responses to that desire.
According to the prophets, God is ultimately responsible for healing. It is said by God, through the prophet Moses in Deuteronomy (32:39):
See now that I, I am he,
and beside me there is no other god.
It is I who deal death and life,
when I have struck, it is I who heal
no one can rescue anyone from me.
And similarly in the Book of Job (5:18), also attributed to Moses, it is said about God:
For he who wounds is he soothes the sore, and the hand that hurts is the hand that heals.
As expressed beautifully in Psalms 103 and 107 (attributed to King David), the Lord may heal all diseases:
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits
Who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He sent forth his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.
The forgiveness of sins—an action linked in meaning to healing of diseases in Psalm 103—comes about as a result of turning towards God. As described in Psalm 107, the saving, healing, and rescue are all a response to prayer (crying out to the Lord).
Jesus healed many; his ministry of healing is a common thread of all the gospel accounts. Healing was an important means of conveying his message, along with parables, sermons, and other means. It was possibly the primary reason that most people came to see him: either to be healed or drawn in awe by his reputation for healing. Thus, for example, John noted that (6:2): "a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he had done in curing the sick."
Several times, Jesus healed many suffering people at once; in addition, he healed individuals he encountered or who sought him out along his journeys. As described by Luke (4:40): "At sunset all those who had friends suffering from diseases of one kind or another brought them to him, and laying his hands on each he cured them." And later, Luke (7:21) points to an instance where: "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind." Relaying Jesus' arrival at Gennesaret, Mark notes that (6:54-55): "people at once recognized him, and started hurrying all through the countryside and brought the sick on stretchers to wherever they heard he was." In fact, early in the Gospel account, Mark observed that Jesus was confronted by huge crowds seeking healing (3:9-10): "And he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, to keep him from being crushed. For he had cured so many that all who were afflicted in any way were crowding forward to touch him."
Matthew, who gave the largest number of accounts of healing by Jesus, described the extent of healing work in his Gospel just prior to setting down the beatitudes (54:23-24):
He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing all kinds of disease and illnesses among the people. His fame spread throughout Syria, and those who were suffering from diseases and painful complaints of one kind or another, the possessed, epileptics, the paralyzed, they were all brought to him, and he cured them.
On one occasion, Matthew (7:16-17) put Jesus' healing action in context of salvation history:
That evening they brought him many who were possessed by devils. He drove out the spirits with a command and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 'He himself bore our sicknesses away and carried our diseases.'
The healing of diseases served as a display of love, compassion, and divine power; it was the physical manifestation of his spiritual role in healing the rift between man and God. After giving some details of individuals so healed in body and spirit, Matthew repeated his earlier statement, this time referring to his further travels that extended beyond Galilee (9:35): "Jesus made a tour through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing all kinds of disease and all kinds of illness."
Though it is evident that many hundreds, probably several thousands, of instances of healing occurred during Jesus' short time on earth, a small number of incidents are specifically described in the Gospels (about half a dozen each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke), some of them being emphasized by having the story repeated among the synoptic gospels. In the Gospel of John, less emphasis is placed on this aspect of the work of the Son of God; still, three healings are described by John.
Jesus taught that faith was essential to receiving the grace of being healed; this message dominates all others. Through the telling of specific healing events by the Gospel writers, the other essential aspects of prayer for healing are also disclosed. In the same manner in which the seven sacraments recognized by the Church were laid out indirectly-by statements made in the Gospels and through actions carried out by the apostles pointing to them-the basic forms that healing prayer may take are revealed indirectly via these accounts. In these accounts, the people speak to Jesus as he stands as a man before them; today, people pray to him as he is present among us in a different manner.
This story in the Gospel of Matthew (8:5-13), which was also told in the other three Gospels, is one of the most complete depictions of what is involved in praying for healing and it relays, among other things, that faith is the central requisite:
When he [Jesus] went into Capernaum, a centurion came up and pleaded with him. 'Sir,' he said, 'my servant is lying at home paralyzed and in great pain.' Jesus said to him, 'I will come myself and cure him.' The centurion replied, 'Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof; just give the word and my servant will be cured. For I am under authority myself and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man "Go," and he goes; to another, "Come here," and he comes; to my servant, "Do this," and he does it.' When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, 'In truth I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found faith as great as this. And I tell you that many will come from east and west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of Heaven; but the children of the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.' And to the centurion Jesus said, 'Go back, then; let this be done for you, as your faith demands.' And the servant was cured at that moment.
The centurion begins with the acknowledgement that help is needed: in saying that his servant is ill (paralyzed) and is suffering (great pain), he is also indicating that he does not possess the solution to this problem, but needs divine assistance and believes that Jesus is the source of that assistance. Jesus is prepared at that point to answer the request. However, the story is elaborated to reveal more about what constitutes prayer for healing.
The centurion goes a step further by saying, as is done now in the liturgy of the Eucharist because of this story: "I am not worthy but just say the word…" He expresses what God requires, which is the contrite and humble heart (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15) and the faith that the favorable outcome is in the hands of God, if He will only have the will to say the word. The centurion elaborates his faith explicitly, demonstrating his understanding of the power that God has over healing. He does this by pointing out that just as he can command others to do his will, he knows that Jesus can produce a response by his command as well, all that is required is that he will it; the centurion has no doubt that Jesus is the ultimate commander. By using a meaningful analogy, he elicited from Jesus' high praise. The command then comes: "this will be done."
A story of similar nature is told later in the Gospel of Matthew (15:22-28) about a woman's request for healing of her sick daughter, in which another aspect of prayer is addressed:
And suddenly, out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting 'Lord, Son of David, take pity on me! My daughter is tormented by a devil.' But he said not a word in answer to her. And his disciples went and pleaded with him, saying, 'Give her what she wants, because she keeps shouting after us.' He said in reply, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.' But the woman had come up and was bowing low before him. 'Lord,' she said, 'help me.' He replied, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to little dogs. She retorted, 'Ah yes, Lord; but even little dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master's table.' Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, you have great faith. Let your desire be granted.' And from that moment her daughter was well again.'
The woman (described as a gentile in Mark's rendition 7:24) has acknowledged the need for help in describing the suffering of her daughter, which is clearly beyond her ability to remedy; she specifically asks: "Lord help me." She expresses the contrite heart in asking the Lord to have pity on her (translated alternatively as 'have mercy upon me').
The disciples complain about her repetitive demands. This situation is reminiscent of the story of the woman beseeching the judge (Luke 18:1-8), which is the account more often selected in explaining out this aspect of prayer. The judge wants to get rid of the sticky problem, as the woman's continuing requests are bothersome. In both cases, this is a story about persistence in prayer (Luke 18 begins with the statement that this is a "parable about the need to pray continuously and never lose heart."); it is also about the proper response of those whose help is sought. Jesus chides his disciples for their impatience and unwillingness to help her; he suggests another excuse that they might as well fall back on: this woman, being a gentile, would seem to be outside of the realm of the salvation of the Jews, and, therefore, not to be bothered about. Earlier (Matthew 10:6), he had sent the disciples out to perform healing (even raising the dead) but restricted them from going out to the Gentiles and the Samaritans, limiting their work at this point to the "lost sheep of Israel." However, Jesus shows his disciples that, in fact, his own actions are not bounded this way (just as they are not bounded by the Sabbath or other barriers); rather, the only true obstacle is lack of faith and lack of compassion as they have displayed in this instance.
Jesus also challenges the woman, asking her why she expects him to respond: should I take the bread needed by the children to feed the dogs? The Canaanite woman provides the correct answer; she could have argued, instead, that she does not deserve to be classified with the dogs or that she is just as needy as the children; responses typical of those who feel automatically entitled. To the contrary, she expressed her humility, conceding the lowly place that was described (as befits all people) and indicating that she is willing to accept merely scraps because she knows these are from God and are truly efficacious (the willingness to accept only table scraps was also mentioned in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)). The woman demonstrates that she understands the boundless compassion and capability of God, as had the centurion, and thus her prayer is answered favorably. The disciples have been rebuked and the woman has been rewarded.
The importance of faith was emphasized again in another incident told by Matthew, one which is more elaborately described by Mark (9: 14-29) in which again the weakness of the disciples is pointed out. It is a story about the healing of a boy possessed by demon which is causing epileptic symptoms:
As they were rejoining the disciples they saw a large crowd round them and some scribes arguing with them. At once, when they saw him, the whole crowd were struck with amazement and ran to greet him. And he asked them, 'What are you arguing about with them?' A man answered him from the crowd, 'Master, I have brought my son to you; there is a spirit of dumbness in him, and when it takes hold of him it throws him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and goes rigid. And I asked your disciples to drive it out and they were unable to.'
In reply he said to them, 'Faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.' They brought the boy to him, and at once the spirit of dumbness threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell to the ground and lay writhing there, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, 'How long has this been happening to him?' 'From childhood,' he said, 'and it has often thrown him into fire and into water, in order to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.'
'If you can?' retorted Jesus. 'Everything is possible for one who has faith.' At once the father of the boy cried out, 'I have faith. Help my lack of faith!' And when Jesus saw that a crowd was gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit. 'Deaf and dumb spirit,' he said, 'I command you: come out of him and never enter him again.' Then it threw the boy into violent convulsions and came out shouting, and the boy lay there so like a corpse that most of them said, 'He is dead.' But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him up, and he was able to stand. When he had gone indoors, his disciples asked him when they were by themselves, 'Why were we unable to drive it out?' He answered, 'This is the kind that can be driven out only by prayer.'
The man had followed the right course of action; he evidently had placed his faith and confidence in the disciples of Jesus, who had gained a good reputation for healing. But, since they failed, he had to go over their heads, to the master, and seek help. He is now uncertain, wondering whether or not Jesus can do anything in this case; perhaps the boy's condition is hopeless. In responding to this uncertainty Jesus does not simply declare that he can do anything; instead, he says-more generally-that everything is possible for one who has faith. The man recognizes what he must do and begs for help with his lack of faith. The child is cured.
The final exchange in this story is telling. The boy can only be cured by prayer, Jesus explains to the disciples. Certainly, the disciples had tried prayer and understand that prayer is the essential healing act they can offer. The implication is that the prayer required here must be a true prayer (trusting prayer), elicited by the greatest of faith, a quality which he bemoaned as lacking in them the moment he heard of their failure. In other words, the disciples may have taken their earlier successes for granted and fallen into a pattern of rote repetition. This is the same type of problem Jesus frequently pointed to in the behavior of the Jewish spiritual leaders who focused on the details of the law (for carrying out animal sacrifices; for avoiding activity on the Sabbath) and had thus missed the point of the law, which was to guide people in carrying out heart-felt thanksgiving.
There are several additional details in this story of healing; what is the purpose in relaying the severity of the disorder and describing how long it has been present? One thing this accomplishes is to erase any doubt that the result is truly miraculous. What the man is asking for is not something minor, but a great thing. Jesus often teaches about prayer accomplishing tremendous results, using analogies such as turning a mountain upside down (see Mark 11:23).
In each of these three exemplary stories relayed above, the person making the prayer for healing was not the one who was sick, and this also gives us some insight into the plan for healing, namely, the importance of praying for and helping each other (a subject discussed in another article). But, there are other stories in the gospel accounts where Jesus directly rewards the faith of the one who is suffering the illness. Three in particular will be noted here. As relayed in the Gospel of Matthew (9:20-22):
Then suddenly from behind him came a woman, who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, and she touched the fringe of his cloak, for she was saying to herself, "If only I can touch the cloak I shall be saved." Jesus turned around and saw her, and he said to her, "Courage, my daughter, your faith has saved you." And from that moment, the woman was saved."
In this story, the woman's great faith is clear in that she believes even touching his cloak will be sufficient to gain healing (that even touching Jesus or his cloak would heal was an impression many had; see Mark 3:10). More importantly to the understanding of this particular story is the fact that Jesus does not actually approve of this approach of trying to gain the result surreptitiously; instead, he turns and addresses her. The encounter reflects the importance of direct communication in prayer. The story was of sufficient importance that it was relayed in three gospels, each with additional details. As relayed by Luke (8:43-48), it is further noted that Jesus becomes aware of the women touching him-and thereby receiving healing (the bleeding has stopped)-as he feels power flowing outward from him. It is almost as if she is stealing from him. The woman "came forward trembling, and falling at his feet explained in front of all the people why she had touched him…" Jesus then confirms to her face to face that her faith has made her well.
Mark gave the longest description of this incident (5:24-34) and included mention of her prior experience: that "after long and painful treatment under various doctors, she had spent all she had without being any the better, in fact, she was getting worse." This is a way of showing what can come from turning to faith only as a last resort rather than at the beginning, namely that one will risk enduring much and spending all one has. This depiction of medical failures is not a slap against physicians, even though it does acknowledge the limits of their abilities. Rather, it is a call to turn to prayer once it is evident that human methods are insufficient. Although Jesus is present to her so as to provide the miracle healing at that moment (and not before), the people in this area had already learned from the prophets (as recorded in the Old Testament) that prayer was important to healing. So, the suggestion is that she had waited too long.
The attitude of relying on the will of God as part of the prayer and having an understanding of what the result of such prayer might be is relayed in a story in Matthew (8:1-3):
After he had come down from the mountain large crowds followed him. Suddenly a man with a virulent skin diseases came up and bowed low in front of him, saying, 'Lord, if you are willing, you can cleanse me.' Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him saying, 'I am willing. Be cleansed.' And the skin-disease was cleansed at once.
The man with leprosy (as the disorder is usually described) had approached Jesus in the proper way, indicating his desire to act in conformity with the will of God, which, in this case, was in favor of his being cured. He was ready to accept the possibility that continued suffering would be his lot in life.
The story of the two blind men asking for sight completes the descriptions of individual healings in the Gospel of Matthew (20:29-34) and reveals another aspect of healing prayer:
As they left Jericho a large crowd followed him. And now there were two blind men sitting at the side of the road. When they heard that it was Jesus who was passing by, they shouted, 'Lord! Have pity on us, son of David.' And the crowd scolded them and told them to keep quiet, but they only shouted the louder, 'Lord! Have pity on us, son of David.' Jesus stopped, called them over and said, 'What do you want me to do for you?' They said to him, 'Lord, let us have our sight back.' Jesus felt pity for them and touched their eyes, and at once their sight returned and they followed him.
In this story, we see again the persistence of prayer, as these two were scolded by the crowds to cease their repeated pleadings. The additional detail included here is Jesus' question: "what do you want?" In other passages, it is made clear that Jesus is able to know the minds of others (see Matthew 9:4), so why include this exchange? Because it reveals important clues about how one might go about asking for healing; that is, it is helpful to clearly specify what is being sought. The reason for this is not so that Jesus would know what to do, but rather so that the person praying will express what is in the heart. The petitioner is not to demur and simply pray: "whatever help you can give me, I will take that." It is noted in the story that Jesus felt pity for them; they could have asked for something different, perhaps unveiling instead an unworthy desire, which might then not have been answered favorably.
In the gospel accounts, all requests for healing that are made to Jesus are granted. In making the requests, there may be various challenges raised, but, in the end, there is the positive response. Thus, the gospels display the correct way to pray. Though Jesus does not now walk among us in his earthly human body, he remains accessible through prayer and especially through participation in the Eucharist. He has guided us in prayer for healing.
The essential requirements for prayer and the appropriate form of prayer become evident from these stories. The revealed aspects might be enumerated as they are here without intending to imply any rigid form that any particular prayer might take:
In this analysis and enumeration, it is seen that healing prayer is more involved than a simple request for a result; it incorporates several layers of revealing one's faith and disposition. By laying out essential components of prayer for healing as done here, this does not mean that we now have full knowledge of how to pray. Further, one must be careful not to substitute form and details for the central element, described in Psalm 107 as crying out to the Lord, a plea from the depths of the soul based on true faith. We lack complete knowledge and understanding in prayer. Recognizing our weakness and relying upon the help of the Holy Spirit (especially to strengthen our faith, as reflected in the story of the man who brought his son for healing but had lost some of his faith after an initial failure) we can with courage and confidence present the prayer. St. Paul described the situation we face this way in his letter to the Romans (8:26-28), a passage that is often quoted as the example of this uncertainty:
….the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the nature of prayer that encompasses our uncertainty about it and draws attention to the need for humility in light of this:
"Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or "out of the depths" of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought," are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. "Man is a beggar before God." [CCC, 2559]
Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. [CCC, 2562]
The form of prayer depicted above reflects that taught by Jesus in the "Our Father." That one prayer has generated numerous books detailing its implications, but suffice it to say here that it incorporates the desire to accept God's will ("thy will be done"), the inclusion of a specific request for help ("give us our daily bread and forgive our trespasses"), and acknowledging our weakness ("lead us not into temptation" or, as in more literature translations, "put us not to the test"). Faith is displayed by addressing God as "our Father," and we understand the importance of making this prayer frequently. Thus, it can be seen that the form of prayer for healing as revealed in the gospels reflects the form of prayer that Jesus taught in response to the request "Lord, teach us to pray: (Luke 11:1)" One prayer was given so that we might be guided in all prayer.
The gospel accounts provide some indications about how one might respond to healing. Three examples will suffice. In the first, Jesus requests the person to keep the results to himself; this is a story of two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31), a different incident than relayed above:
As Jesus went on his way two blind men followed him shouting, 'Take pity on us, son of David.' And when Jesus reached the house the blind men came up to him and he said to them, 'Do you believe I can do this?' They said, 'Lord, we do.' Then he touched their eyes saying, 'According to your faith, let it be done to you.' And their sight returned. Then Jesus sternly warned them, 'Take care that no one learns about this.' But, when they had gone away, they talked about him all over the countryside.
One may wonder why Jesus had so cautioned them. Obviously, the miracle could draw big crowds, and he was already surrounded by large pressing crowds (as was relayed in the story of the woman with hemorrhage). But, the request doesn't seem to be directed at this issue, since immediately preceding the story of these two blind men, is the story (Matthew 9:23-25) of Jesus raising the official's daughter back to life, with the concluding statement (Matthew 9:26): "And the news of this spread all round the countryside."
Rather, this appeal for not spreading around the news of healing may be consistent with Jesus' teaching (Matthew 6:1-18) about almsgiving in secret, prayer in secret, and fasting in secret. These things are done in secret not to hide them from others, but because one is not to become caught up in showing off to others. Since God knows what you are doing and what has happened to you; that is sufficient. In receiving a miraculous healing, it is better to thank and praise God than to go about talking about one's good fortune.
Another example of response to healing is given in association with the story of the man cleansed of a skin disease, which was relayed above; the story continues (Matthew 8:4):
Then Jesus said to him, "Mind you tell no one, but go and show yourself to the priest and make the offering prescribed by Moses, as evidence to them.
The offering prescribed by Moses (in Leviticus 4:1-32) involves going to a priest and pursuing a lengthy series of actions. The purpose of recommending this, we might conclude, is consistent with Jesus' statements in support of the law (Matthew 5:17-18) as had been passed down by Moses. The actions include animal sacrifices, which later, after Jesus' death on the cross, are no longer deemed necessary and are now replaced by the Eucharist, the final and always renewing sacrifice. Thus, the command by Jesus in this gospel passage would be replaced today by the command to go to a priest and participate in the Eucharist as a response to healing.
In Mark's account of this same healing event (Mark 1:40-45), Jesus also tells the man not to tell others (aside from the priest). But, the man went away and "started freely proclaiming and telling the story everywhere." So, it appears that people Jesus healed may have had difficulty following this caution. Upon reading this failure to follow his words, we may have a sense of being ashamed of such behavior. What he asked was small; it was very small compared to what he gave.
The third example is the story about the 10 men with leprosy who Jesus cured as he was traveling in the border area of Samaria and Galilee, as told by Luke (17:12-19)
As he entered one of the villages, ten men suffering from a virulent skin-disease came to meet him. They stood some way off and called to him, Jesus! Master! Take pity on us! When he saw them he said, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' Now, as they were going away they were cleansed. Finding himself cured, one of them turned back praising God at the top of his voice and threw himself prostrate at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan. This led Jesus to say, 'Were not all ten made clean? The other nine, where are they? It seems that no one has come back to give praise to God except this foreigner.' And he said to the man, 'Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.'
The instruction to "Go and show yourselves to the priests'" is the same one described in the previous story, namely, this is to follow the original Mosaic law. Giving praise to God, who has healed them, rather than spreading the word around to others, is the right thing to do; but only one in ten has done this. Again, we may feel ashamed of the behavior as displayed by the other nine.
In sum, the response to healing is to give thanks (both through prayer and Eucharist) and to keep it as one's personal experience rather than telling others. Under some circumstances, reporting miraculous healings through appropriate means (e.g., telling the story in a context that leads people to greater faith and understanding) may be worthy. As stated in Instructions on Prayer for Healings, article 9 (this relates to group healing sessions, but would also indicate the proper response for personal healing prayers):
Those who direct healing services, whether liturgical or non-liturgical, are to strive to maintain a climate of peaceful devotion in the assembly and to exercise the necessary prudence if healings should take place among those present; when the celebration is over, any testimony can be collected with honesty and accuracy, and submitted to the proper ecclesiastical authority.
The church authorities may make use of such information in evaluating the possibility of intercession by saints and provide recommendations about any further actions to take or to avoid in response to the claimed healing.
When the Church undertakes its procedures to determine whether or not a holy person should be formally classified as a saint, it seeks to evaluate miracles that have been reported to result from people who have been praying for the intercession of that person. These miracles are most often based on healing of a disease that was thought to be incurable, where the change in the disease condition is unexplainable by medical science; prayer made for the intercession of the holy person is the action to which the healing is ascribed. That is, intercessory prayer was the method utilized in gaining God's grace in performing a miracle. According to the current rules outlined in Divinus Perfectionis Magister (Servant of the Servants of God) there is to be a board of medical experts in the Sacred Congregation whose responsibility is to examine reports of healings which are proposed as miracles.
Along these lines, when intercessory prayers are invited from parishioners during Mass, as frequently is the practice during daily mass at the end of Liturgy of the Word, aside from general requests, the most common specific requests are for healing of persons who are suffering serious diseases, such as cancer, and those who are facing risky medical procedures, such as surgery. This is because healing of disease is understood by members of the congregation to be an appropriate objective of such prayer. The ultimate intercessor is Jesus, as indicated by St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy (2:5): "there is only one mediator between God and humanity, himself a human being, Christ Jesus…." As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Since Abraham, intercession-asking on behalf of another-has been characteristic of a heart attuned to God's mercy. In the age of the Church, Christian intercession participates in Christ's, as an expression of the communion of saints. In intercession, he who prays looks "not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others," even to the point of praying for those who do him harm. (CCC 2635).
Saints that are frequently relied upon as intercessors to Christ for healing of certain diseases is described in a separate article.
Some people have taken upon themselves the task of attempting to prove that prayer is effective in healing by conducting a scientific study. It seems unlikely that God's work would be revealed in such a manner and such studies tend to be distinctly non-religious in their approach, treating the prayer as a type of straightforward intervention rather than in its deeper context as outlined above As a consequence, some of the characteristics of prayer that have been described here are not taken into consideration, with attention focused on getting specific results. Observed benefits of prayer, which have been proclaimed from such studies, may reflect the consequences of poor methodology as much as any actual response of God to the prayers.
Two well-known examples might be cited here. One is a report from St. Luke's hospital, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine 1999, titled A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. The study involved 999 patients at the coronary care unit, randomized to a control group (not receiving intercessory prayer) and a group who were the subjects of those praying for their healing (for four weeks on a daily basis, each person prayed for by name). The authors claimed that the group receiving the prayer had improved markers of coronary health (measured as a coronary course score) compared to the control group (length of hospitalization remained the same, however). This report generated a large number of letters to the journal challenging the methodology and results.
Another is Leonard Leibovici's study in Israel reported in the British Medical Journal (2001), under the title Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial. The author evaluated results of 2,000 patients randomized into a control group (patients who were not the subject of the prayers) and an intervention group (intercessory prayer for well being and full recovery). He reported that mortality in the control group was 30.2% but in the prayer group was 28.1% (this was not, however, a statistically significant difference), and that duration of hospitalization and duration of fever was significantly shorter in the prayer group than the control group. The methodology and results were strongly challenged by several letters to the editor in subsequent journal issues.
A further complication to evaluating results arises when it is the patients who are praying for their own recovery: the calming effect of undertaking this prayer may be the primary healing action that is observed, at least when populations are evaluated for the statistical impact of praying. Prayer may bring about a number of natural of other responses that aid healing. In addition to a calming effect, it might promote better compliance with (and thus better results from) the physician's interventions. Prayer may alter the sense of suffering that goes along with pain and debility, and thus allow the person to utilize fewer drugs that can have harmful side-effects. The impact of these and other natural responses to prayer might be revealed in studies of the effect of prayer. While a positive outcome in such studies might encourage people to pray, the basis for prayer described in the biblical texts is different. The response to prayer described in the gospels involves supernatural responses: people with seemingly incurable conditions are cured; all disorders are spontaneously resolved, as opposed to gradually improving over time. The supernatural influences are personal and are not subject to revelation through statistical analysis.
The status and role of the physician, taken in the context of religion, is described in the Book of Sirach (aka Ecclesiastes; 38:1-8):
Hold the physician in honor, for he is essential to you, and God it was who established his profession. From God the doctor has his wisdom, and the king provides for his sustenance. His knowledge makes the doctor distinguished, and gives him access to those in authority. God makes the earth yield healing herbs which the prudent man should not neglect; was not the water sweetened by a twig that men might learn his power? He endows men with the knowledge to glory in his mighty works, through which the doctor eases pain and the druggist prepares his medicines.
In essence, the doctor is a minister of God who uses the physical medicines provided to him (in earlier times with herbs, now mainly through materials manufactured by man) to carry out healing; the druggist also plays his important part in the process. Often, the actions of the physician and the effects of the drugs provide the desired result. In some cases, they can not.
In the story of the woman suffering from years of hemorrhaging, it was mentioned that physicians had failed through the treatments they offered. The instances of healing that are described in detail in the Gospels involve diseases that were considered incurable (at least at this time in history), often being disorders suffered since birth or young age (e.g., blindness, epilepsy). Thus, it is implied, though not stated, that physicians may have been consulted but could not change the outcome. Divine intervention, attained through prayer (asking Jesus directly in the stories) is the solution.
The value of prayer for other, more limited or benign illnesses, is not thereby discounted. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew (1:29-31), there is mention of Simon's mother-in-law who "was in bed and feverish." Jesus "took her by the hand and helped her up and the fever left her…" Still, the focus of the healing stories involves more dramatic medical miracles.
Stories in Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 3:1-13; 5:15-16; 28:8-9) and from literature of that time period indicate that such spontaneous healings in response to faith remained common, mediated by the Apostles and other devout followers. Unfortunately, there is little that can be said about the later claims for healings because of the lack of authority attributed to the texts and inadequate investigation of the details.
Many such healings are today attributed to intercession of saints, particularly those saints who dealt with medical problems themselves, such as St. Peregrine Laziosi, who suffered from cancer of the foot. It is recognized that over time, for whatever reason (lack of faith, the separation, in the minds of many, of healing the body from spiritual salvation), the charism of spontaneous healing by the action of a living individual becomes less common, though it has not vanished (see Appendix for example). Healing prayer today, with the aim of remission of disease thanks to intervention of holy people, more often becomes one part of a lengthy healing process that also relies heavily upon the action of dedicated professional men and women, such as medical doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. They serve as instruments of God's intention. Thus, prayer does not substitute for appropriate medical work, but medical interventions also do not replace prayer.
As stated in Instructions on Prayers for Healing: "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....'"
The reliance on human societal structures, such as hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and medical schools, seems consistent and parallel with the development of the Church-from its origins with the apostles on Pentecost-to the elaborate social structure described as the body of Christ. There has been a development of organizations and procedures to carry out what was spontaneous in the gospels.
One of the most dramatic aspects of John Paul II's teachings came in his later years when it was obvious to everyone the extent to which he suffered from physical ailments. It was known that he had a Parkinson's type ailment, suffered from pain affecting his legs, and other problems that may have arisen from age and from the after effects of his near miss with death due to the assassination attempt. He inspired hundreds of millions of people by carrying on vigorously despite these conditions (more must be said about this in an article on the subject of suffering), and particularly gave comfort to those who were suffering from various diseases and disabilities.
In February 1993, he declared the World Day of the Sick, initiating an annual event for recognition of this concern, and noted that "Illness, which in everyday experience is perceived as a frustration of the natural life force, for believers becomes an appeal to "read" the new, difficult situation in the perspective which is proper to faith." He did this soon after he underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor, and just before his own health began to fail; in November of that year, he fell and dislocated his shoulder and in April of the next year he underwent hip replacement surgery with hospitalization for four weeks. It was also around this time that signs of Parkinson's disease appeared.
Few could doubt the tremendous faith of John Paul II, seeming to overshadow that of nearly everyone else. His reliance on prayer was legendary. If anyone would have the 'ear of God' (both directly, and through the intercession of Mary and the other saints), it would be the Vicar of Christ. So, it appears that God did not will him to be healed of these diseases. John Paul II understood and effectively utilized his own physical suffering (and the mental suffering that comes with bodily pain and limitations that are imposed), and the Catholic world were able to watch him bear this cross with Jesus. Important, too, in his lesson, was that he did not lose faith, did not turn from medical help, did not falter despite his continued ailments.
Ratzinger explained in Instructions for Prayers for Healing: "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 Corinthians 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' (Colossians 1:24).
We might ask, though, why did Jesus make it seem so easy for people to be cured of lifelong ailments during his ministry on earth? It was most likely because of the necessities of the time. Mark provides a clue to the situation with the first description of Jesus' teaching involving the cure of a demon-possessed man (Mark 1:27): "The people were so astonished that they started asking one another what it all meant, saying, 'Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it.'" The display of this unique authority was also relayed in the story of the curing of the paralytic described in the Gospel of Matthew (9:2-6):
Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!" Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home."
Thus, the healing of the sick was an external manifestation of God's power that was more easily understood than forgiveness of sins, the ultimate aim, one which was truly difficult for people to grasp (as shown by the trouble the apostles had even while being with Jesus much of the time). In the Gospel of Luke, just after the section quoted earlier about the numerous healings that Jesus had accomplished, Jesus responds this way to messengers from John the Baptist who pose a question (7:22-23):
So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
Miraculous healing serves as a positive sign of the nature of the message Jesus brings; courage is gained by those who believe. Jesus displayed the value of healing, encouraging his followers forever after to help those who are sick and injured, to be like the good Samaritan. The miraculous healings themselves may have become less frequent but the message has become more fully developed over time.
The following excerpt is from a report that appeared in the Mindszenty Report (by the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation) in September 1997. The full report (http://www.mindszenty.org/report/1997/sept97/sept97.html) gives more information about the life of Father John A. Houle, S.J., who was the person healed, including the dramatic story of his years of imprisonment in China. The intercessory is Saint Claude la Colombiere (1641-1682), who had become well-known for his spread of the devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus. Father Frank Parrish, who conducted the prayer for Father Houle, was much devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and wrote a book on the subject titled "Sparks from the Heart."
Just before Christmas in 1989, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that is always fatal. By February he was given only a few days to live. At Santa Teresita Hospital, run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, his superior Fr. Frank Parrish-director of the Apostleship of Prayer for the Los Angeles Archdiocese-arrived at Father Houle's bedside with a first class relic of Blessed Claude la Colombiere, a small sliver of bone. He placed it on the dying priest's forehead and prayed for a miracle.
Three days later, Father Houle's condition had greatly improved and, to the amazement of his doctors, x-rays showed the pulmonary fibrosis had completely disappeared. The Jesuit priest's physician, Dr. Gary Conrad, said he had no explanation for what happened: "While, as a physician, I can't affirm or deny miracles as such, I'd have to say, and I have attested, that there's simply no medical explanation for the sudden turnabout in his condition. He was too far gone for that."
What happened next was detailed in The Mindszenty Report (May 1992) as follows: With Dr. Conrad's assistance, and that of Sr. Maria Elia, Santa Teresita's pastoral director, Fr. Parrish gathered medical data, pertinent x-rays, and other information to submit to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Archdiocesan officials, especially Los Angeles Bishop John Ward, conducted extensive interviews with the hospital's staff physicians and personnel about the case. The Vatican postulator for the cause of Jesuit saints, Fr. Paolo Molinari, came to Los Angeles in October 1990 and conducted his own 10-day inquiry. A 200-plus page report on Father Houle's apparent miraculous recovery from terminal pulmonary fibrosis was subsequently submitted to high Church authorities in Rome who ruled, in 1991, that "there was no question of human agency in the events surrounding the Jesuit's remarkable recovery." The judgment was then sent to Pope John Paul for recommendation.
Months later came a letter from Fr. Peter Gumpel, the Jesuit secretary for the office in Rome that studies Jesuit causes of saints: "It is a joy for me to inform you that the medical board of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has declared unanimously that a cure effected by God through the intercession of Blessed Claude de la Colombiere is so extraordinary that it cannot be explained by medical science."
Father Houle's miraculous cure was the third and final one necessary for Blessed Claude's canonization. On May 31, 1992-as a witness to a personal miracle by his 17th Century fellow Jesuit-the priest who had suffered imprisonment by the Chinese Communists was present at St. Claude's canonization Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as Pope John Paul II presided.