QUESTION and ANSWER
Conducted by Fr. JOHN SYMON
Question—I have a good friend who is a Baptist and she tells me that in her church they have monthly prayer meetings at which they pray for the sick. She has great faith that God always answers these prayers. I, too, believe that, if God wills it, people are healed by prayer, but I should be grateful if you could expand on the Church's teaching about spiritual healing.
Mrs. C., Camberley,
Answer—Not only do we Catholics believe in prayer for the sick, but, of course, in common with our Baptist friends and with other Christians we practise it regularly.
It is significant that, even before the present renewal of the Mass-liturgy led to a rather more formal and definite mention of the sick in the Bidding Prayers, it was the custom in many parishes to include vernacular prayers for this intention among the notices that obtruded themselves in between the Gospel and the sermon.
In the days of the wellnigh universal Latin Mass it seemed as if the basic Christian idea of publicly commending the sick to God was so strong that, despite the rigidity of our ceremonial rules, it just had to find some outlet.
If we have been on a pilgrimage to Lourdes or if we have taken part in services at home held in imitation of what happens at Lourdes, we will be aware of another type of public prayer for the sick.
Again, not only is it one of a priest's first duties to visit the sick and pray for them and with them, but the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is a particularly significant and powerful way of doing this. Incidentally, when discussing this Catholic practice with Protestants, it is always worth mentioning that it has a biblical foundation in the fifth chapter of the Epistle of St. James.
As followers of Christ, we are sure that God always hears and answers our prayers, but our confidence must not lead us into an unduly mechanical description of prayer and how it achieves its results. We must not speak as if, were we to pray hard enough for someone who is sick or were the invalid to have sufficient faith, then inevitably he would recover. This is neither the course of common sense nor is it truly Christian.
For a good example of how prayer does affect the sick, we can hardly do better than glance at what happens at Lourdes. Of the thousands of sick who go there each year, very few indeed are heated in the medical sense but, thanks to the prayers offered there, God gives them all a fresh understanding of the imponance of their sufferings for the spiritual health and well-being of the Church. This is the real miracle of Lourdes and, if it comes to that, in large measure this is what spiritual healing is all about.
The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is intended for anyone who is seriously ill and is the Church's chief way of consecrating the state of sickness. In this sacrament we pray that, if it be in accord with God's plan, the invalid may recover but, alterna tively, if God wills that the sickness be lengthy or even mortal, we pray that our sick friend may understand and accept it. All this implies that it is a mistake to delay the anointing on the ground that it may disturb the invalid.
A considerable amount of re-education will have to be done before we all come to a proper appreciation of this sacrament. When a prominent Catholic is dying, if he has not been anointed previously in the course of his illness, he is, of course, given this sacrament, like any other member of the Church. When the news media discover this, they tend to announce the anointing as if it were regarded by Catholics as an immediate preparation for death. This is far from being the case but, if many Catholics are mistaken about the nature of this sacrament, we can hardly blame the national dailies for making the same error.
Incidentally, during the Lourdes season last year, several French dioceses held a public Anointing of the Sick as one of their pilgrimage devotions; this is certainly the type of thing that is needed to spread a correct understanding of the main purpose of the sacrament of the sick.