|Fr. Juan Usma Gomez
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
Understanding each other fosters growth, unity
One of the ostensibly most controversial issues in relations between Catholics and Pentecostals is the issue of healing. In fact, together with speaking in tongues, the emphasis on the expectation of miraculous healings is one of the "pentecostal ways" that cause apprehension and reservation regarding the legitimacy and very Christian nature of the healings.
Almost everywhere throughout the world, the promise of healing has become a leitmotif of Pentecostal and Charismatic communities in attracting new members.1 While admitting that this may be somewhat reductive, we must bear in mind that the promise or the "proof" of an alleged healing constitutes one of the most "effective" means of attraction in our modern world.
To be healed or to witness a healing in one's own community has gained increasing importance.
If we go to the Sacred Scriptures, we soon see that the Gospels narrate many episodes of healing. Undoubtedly, the compassion of Christ for the sick and his numerous healings of various infirmities are a clear sign of the fact that "God has visited his people" (Lk 7:16) and that the Kingdom of God is at hand (cf. Mt 10:7; Lk 10:9).
The ministry of Jesus was most certainly undertaken through authoritative words and compelling deeds. His healings were not simply thaumaturgic acts, for — without exception — they are linked to the faith of the sick person and they become messianic experiences (cf. Mt 8:6-10; 9:21-22, 27-30; Mk 2:4-5; 10:50-52; Lk 17:17-22; Jn 9:1), even when the intention of this experience is not always recognized by those witnessing the healing (cf. Mk 2:4-9; Jn 9:13-40).
Nonetheless, Jesus is not the only healer in the New Testament. Jesus himself bestows the power of healing to his apostles. In undertaking their mission and as part of it, the apostles together with others undertake healings in the Name of Jesus, but never as a manifestation of their own power or directed to their own ends (cf. Acts 8:13; 9:36-43; 14:8-11).
Moreover, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to a special charism of healing that the Holy Spirit confers on some believers so that it may convey the force of the grace emanating from the Risen One (cf. I Cor 12:9; 28-30).
Everything is fairly clear until this point. To ask for health in
body and soul has always been featured in the Church. Indeed, we read in
the Catechism of the Catholic Church that
This affirmation is fully shared by Pentecostals; however, it should be noted that in the Catechism it introduces the chapter on "The Sacraments of Healing", that is, the Sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation, and the Anointing of the Sick.
It is quite legitimate for a Catholic to ask for healing. In fact, at various times and with different rites, the Church dedicates a range of liturgical prayers to this very intention. The saints with the charisma of healing and the prayer sites that have arisen in places of miraculous healings are well-known.
Asking for the grace of healing is therefore not unfamiliar in Catholic practice. However, this should not lead the Christian to forget that there is no greater evil than sin, and that nothing has worse consequences either for the sinners themselves, for the Church or for the entire world.3 The recovery of health is important if it contributes to spiritual salvation (cf. Mt 9:5-8).
Healing is a grace, but illness is not somehow inevitably its absence: the union of the suffering person with the Passion of Christ is crucial for his or her own good and for the good of the Church (cf. Col 1:24).
The approaches are quite wide-ranging on the part of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. One sometimes speaks of their different theologies of healing, although it can be said that generally they all link healing with the atonement of Christ.
And — if the expectation of healing is in some way encouraged and the ministry of healing is considered to be a legitimate aspect of evangelism — one often hears Pentecostal leaders themselves actually warning their followers and/or protesting against illegitimate practices which, masking themselves behind the promise of healing, actually aim at personal enterprises that are quite remote from the Gospel.
"The greatest threat to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement in the last two decades of this [20th] century will be the rise and fall of personal kingdoms, because when they fall, as inevitably they must, the faith of those who do not have their eyes on Jesus will fall with them".4
Risks of 'simony'
The emergence of healers, men and women, whose "performance" is made even more visible by means of the mass media and rallies, has raised urgent doctrinal and pastoral questions for all Christians.
While belonging mainly to the third wave of Pentecostalism ("third wavers"), these modern healers trace their origins to various Christian traditions.
But some of these "tele-evangelists" are actually only tele-vendors of religious products with accompanying economic profit, and not infrequently behind their promises of healing one detects deceit and the exploitation of the good faith of people in need.
In this perspective, there is indeed a high risk of modern "simony" (cf. Acts 8:18-25).
There is also some apprehension associated with arbitrarily using the alleged "charism of healing" and the personal revelations that often mark the healing that has taken place or the difficulties of some witnesses that are called into play as allegedly interfering with the release of evil.
Referring to Scriptural texts, the healers often call themselves exorcists; thus, more than a recovery of health, the healing is above all the liberation from evil.
While granting the good faith of the believers who go to these healers, doubts surface as to the gratuitousness and the foundations of the faith of these believers, as they seem to depend not so much on Jesus Christ as on miracles, healings and the performance of their leaders. The Gospel then takes second place.
Under the influence of the Charismatic Movement, group prayers for healing have become fairly common In the Catholic Church as well.
In 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Instruction on Prayers for Healing, which was intended for Bishops in guiding the faithful in this matter, aiming at fostering positive elements and identifying those to avoid. The Instruction includes a doctrinal part on the graces of healing and the prayers to obtain them, and concludes with disciplinary norms.5
In its second phase, the international Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue offered some reflections on healing in the Church that are still valid, although the topic requires further common investigation aimed at precluding unjust prejudices.
With regard to healing, Catholics and Pentecostals agree on the necessity of the Cross (the search for healing is not simply a search for well-being); healing is a sign of the Kingdom; it involves the person in his or her totality: the faithful expectation of receiving the grace of healing is not contrary to Christian life; Christ is the healer.
However, there is neither agreement nor convergence on the sacramental aspect and therefore on the importance of the ordained ministry with respect to the sacraments of healing, and in particular the Sacrament for the Sick.
Even today, Christ makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. Even today, the charism of healing is bestowed on some believers.
However, while recognizing the possibility of healing which follows from our conviction that nothing is impossible for God, we cannot presume that the miracles of healing are a necessary condition for our Christian faith: one does not necessarily have to see in order to believe (cf. Jn 20:24-29).
Seeking the Spirit of Truth
Thus, spiritual discernment is more than ever necessary in order to distinguish an authentic ministry. "Because of the human frailty, group pressure and other factors, it is possible for the believer to be mistaken or misled in his awareness of the Spirit's intention and influence in the believer's acts. It is for this reason that criteria are essential to confirm and authenticate the genuine operation of the 'Spirit of truth' (cf. I Jn 4:1-6)".7
In our modern times, the charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit have
acquired an increasing degree of visibility; in some cases we could even
say an excessive degree. This situation calls for obtaining one's
bearings so that these charisms may be properly identified and that they
may be given the "space" in which to serve the good of all the Church
(cf. I Cor 12-
The criteria for spiritual discernment ought to contribute to identifying the authenticity of a spiritual experience and its conformity to the doctrine of the Church, thus avoiding deviations and enlightening the "spiritual experiences" of believers.
I end this reflection by extending an invitation to read, discuss and evaluate the final report of the fifth phase of the Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue. The text offers the possibility of undertaking, on the basis of Biblical and Patristic sources, a journey of faith, conversion, discipleship and communitarian experience, and of gaining insight into the action of the Holy Spirit (particularly with regard to baptism in the Spirit).
The members of the dialogue present a common reflection on each of these aspects in contemporary life, seeking to highlight not only the beauty of the Christian life, but also its dynamism since its very beginnings. The text is structured around three main points: becoming a Christian according to the Bible; developments in the Patristic period; and modern pastoral approaches in both communities.
1 This has also been an observation made during the four seminars on ecumenism organized by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, held in Brazil, Kenya, Senegal and South Korea.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1421.
3 Cf. ibid., n. 1488.
4 W. MacDonald, The Cross Versus Personal Kingdom, Pneuma 3/2, Fall 1982: in W. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide, Peabody, 1997, p. 230.
5 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instructions for Prayers on Healing, Vatican City, 14 September 2000.
6 International Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue, Final Report 1977-82, par. 31-40, in: Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Information Service [IS] 55 (1984/II-III).
7 International Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue, Final Report 1972-76, par. 40, in IS 32 (1976/111).
Weekly Edition in English
23 January 2008, page 8
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