It’s worth taking a moment to clarify the Catholic position. First of all, the Catholic Church has always believed in the healing ministry. That ministry is exercised in a multitude of different ways, through the medical profession, through counseling, through the ministry of the sacraments. There is a vast literature on the Catholic approach to healing and the whole range of healing from healing of the memories and inner healing to the forgiveness of sins and the interaction of the mind, body and spirit in healing. One aspect of this is what some recognize as ‘the healing ministry’ within the renewal or charismatic wing of the church. Catholics endorse this kind of healing too, but recognize that it is but one of a whole range of healing ministries that the Church is called to by Christ the Lord, and just like some people are called to be nurses and doctors, so some are called to exercise a healing gift in other ways. One of these may be through ‘faith healing’.
Part of a full and coherent healing ministry is to have an answer and a theology for those who are not healed through prayer. Happily, the New Testament has a lot to say about the suffering of Christians. In fact, suffering seems to be written into the plotline from the very beginning. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus says several times that if we would be his disciple we must take up our cross and follow him. In other other words, to be like Christ, we must share in his sufferings.
Now this is not just a theme in a few verses in the gospels. Indeed, it is laced through the entire New Testament. So St Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings for we know they produce perseverence” “We are co-heirs with Christ if we share in his sufferings.” “I want to know the resurrection of Christ and have a share in his sufferings.” “I rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ so that you may also share in his glory.”
It gets deeper and stranger. At one point St Paul says, “I rejoice in your sufferings for I have filled up in my flesh what is lacking in the cross of Christ.” So suffering is not only redemptive for us, but through it we may share in Christ’s own redemptive work in the world. It sounds an awful lot like the old Catholic word of encouragement to those suffering, “Well, offer it up.”
It seems that St Paul was even ascetic in his practices for he said, “I beat my body to make it my slave that I might not lose the prize.” Furthermore, it is possible that he was the first stigmatic like St Francis and Padre Pio after him for he said, “I bear in my body the marks of Christ.”
Catholics do believe in healing, but we also have a Biblical answer for those who suffer in Christ. According to the Bible, the suffering we endure is our way to ‘take up our cross and be Christ’s disciple.’ The suffering produces perseverance. Suffering also helps us to mysteriously identify with the passion of Christ, and according to the New Testament, this is necessary if we expect to share in the resurrection and glory of Christ.
What I don’t understand is that Pentecostal Evangelicals (who are otherwise such admirably Bible-based Christians) miss this one, but the Catholics (who are supposed to be ignorant of the Bible) seem pretty much on target.