by Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ
New documentary connecting healing and evangelization features Sacred Heart professors.
The film opens with the words You are about to see a miracle, as a group of street evangelizers prays in a Catholic church over Willie, a wheelchair-bound cancer patient. Willie rises from his chair and, supported by friends, walks for the first time in seven years. We are told that a week later Willie's cancer was found to be in remission for no scientific reason. He was soon able to walk without support, his life forever changed.
Willie's healing is but one of many healing miracles shown and discussed in the film, miracles that take place because ordinary Catholics ask with faith. Yet the film is not about healing per se, but about the importance of healing miracles for the mission of evangelization.
Viewers will be intrigued because, as Ms. Smith points out, most Catholics assume that we shouldn't expect to see miracles very much, and we certainly shouldn't expect for miracles to happen through the hands of ordinary Catholics. Indeed, Smith wryly observes that for her, the real miracle was not the healing itself, but that it took place through Catholics praying in a Catholic Church.
What are we to make of this?
For enlightenment on the subject, Smith turns to two Catholic theologians with experience in evangelization and healing ministry. These scholars show with calm conviction just how mistaken the assumptions of many Catholics are and how much the Church needs and encourages faith-filled, Scripture-based prayer for signs and wonders.
Dr. Ralph Martin, professor of theology at Sacred Heart, was appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and also serves as president of Renewal Ministries. He provides telling commentary in Fearless, recalling that when John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, He asked the whole Catholic Church to pray that the Lord will renew in our day his signs and wonders as by a New Pentecost. Subsequent popes have done the same.
To the objection that we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, Dr. Martin responds: the effectiveness of the gift of the Spirit in a validly conferred sacrament can, as the great Church doctor St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, be blocked by a lack of faith, a lack of repentance, and a lack of desire for what the sacrament is intended to give.
How can we awaken faith so that people will repent, ask for the Holy Spirit, and experience his power in their lives? Dr. Mary Healy is professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart and a member of the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Commission, appointed by Pope Francis. She draws on Scripture to illuminate the intrinsic relationship between healing and evangelization.
Like the apostles in the Upper Room, she says, we must pray for the power of the Holy Spirit so that we will be able to implement that part of Jesus' commission that is too often overlooked: Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. She notes that in the early Church, as the disciples evangelized in word, they also did healings. The Lord through them did signs and wonders, and confirmed the truth of the message they spoke.
Dr. Healy appreciates the Church's beautiful theology of redemptive suffering, which recognizes that our suffering united with Christ can be a means of grace to other people, but she argues that it would be a great mistake to conclude that resignation to illness is somehow a holier response than prayer for healing. She passionately insists that miracles are meant to be a part of the Church's message of evangelization in every age.
The documentary includes footage of healing services led by Fr. Mathias Thelen, a priest of the Diocese of Lansing who teaches and gives spiritual direction at Sacred Heart. Those services bear powerful witness that miracles pertain to the Church's evangelizing mission today.
Father Thelen explains the connection between healing and evangelization. I proclaim that God is love, that in his Son Jesus he has come to bring a restoration to humanity who had been alienated from him, that Jesus is alive, he is risen from the dead. As I proclaim that truth, I demonstrate the truth that Jesus is present by praying for healing.
Jesus shows up through the power of his spirit and heals people, thereby convincing people that the gospel is real, that Jesus is alive.
Fearless is doctrinally sound and profoundly inspiring, and I recommend it with great enthusiasm. It convincingly explains why healing is integral to the Catholic mission of evangelization. It communicates hope by showing us how Jesus, the Great Physician, heals and draws to himself those who approach him with open hearts.
To learn more, please visit fearlessdocumentary.net.
Fr. Peter Ryan, SJFr. Peter Ryan, SJ, is professor of theology at Sacred Heart.