Come Monday, Feb. 11 — feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick — thousands will descend on the famous shrine in Lourdes, France, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in a small grotto.
Most will also seek to touch, collect or even drink from the famous spring whose water is said to have delivered physical healings to countless people since St. Bernadette Soubirous brought it to the world’s attention in 1858.
But millions cannot get to Lourdes. Where do they go for hope and healings?
Anywhere a healing Mass is celebrated.
And what should the “hopeful faithful” expect at these sacramental services? Certainly not the sort of theatricality and histrionics seen on many televangelism broadcasts.
What, then? Father Richard McAlear of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate can tell us first-hand. From the churches of America to the other side of the world, including Papua New Guinea and China, he has conducted an international healing ministry since the 1970s. (He’s now online at FrMac.org.)
Father McAlear begins his answer by pointing out Pope Benedict’s frequent exhortations to “experience God.”
“You can talk about God, but at some point people need to experience him, and that’s what the healing Mass does,” says the priest. “It is an immediate way of experiencing God.”
The Catechism backs him up. “In the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us,” we read in No. 1504. “The Holy Spirit gives to some a special charism of healing,” adds No. 1508, “so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord.”
Father McAlear and other healing priests say they’ve seen dramatic physical healings from cancer, leukemia, blindness and heart problems — especially among the poor and in mission countries. But those kinds of deliverances are not the “be all and end all” of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
“It’s what is going on inside — the inner pain, depression, sadness, grief, loss, loneliness,” explains Father McAlear, quoting Isaiah 61:1, and saying the most important healing is of the heart. “A lot of times it’s manifested in physical illness. The need is there to touch the heart and the inner spirit. That’s where the healing Masses make their contribution,” he says. “The spiritual need can only be touched spiritually. Then everything else follows. The hope is restored, the darkness is lifted.”
Giving Us Rest
“The physical healing is a real blessing but that’s only temporary; you’re going to die and the healing is not going to make a difference,” says Father Robert Rousseau, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in North Branford, Conn., who has held monthly healing Masses for more than 20 years. “The most important healing is the one that brings us closer to the Lord.”
During the prayer after Mass and prayer in the presence of the exposed Blessed Sacrament — a common practice among healing priests, who usually seek to emphasize Jesus as the Great Physician — people experience a deep sense of peace, says Father Rousseau.
Sometimes, when hands are laid on them or chrism oil is applied during the Mass, they “rest in the spirit.” That’s another way of saying that some drop to the floor as if in sudden sleep.
Father Rousseau makes clear that such a phenomenon is nothing to be afraid of; nor should those who do not fall backwards feel as though they’re doing something wrong. “God can heal the way he wants,” he says. “He treats everybody individually.”
Sometimes these healings combine the physical and spiritual in astonishing ways.
One stands out for John Botaish, president of the Lourdes Marian Center in Denver. He describes the incident, which happened during the years he was assisting the Center’s recently retired Father Michael Walsh.
A young nun in a major congregation was extremely wheat-intolerant and could only receive the Precious Blood, recalls Botaish. She strongly desired to receive the Sacred Host. The day after Father Walsh prayed for her, she could. And she also ate pasta.
“Her desire wasn’t to consume wheat products but to receive the Eucharist in the standard species in the normal way everyone else did,” says Botaish. “The prayer was answered in a very intimate way by Christ.”
And then there’s the Marian-intercession aspect of healings at Masses.
“Lourdes is the perfect example,” Father McAlear explains. “It’s absolutely Marian front and center, and yet absolutely Christ-centered. This is a perfect combination of the presence of Christ the savoir, Christ the healer, and Mary — who kind of owns the place. She never obstructs Jesus or gets in his way. The priests at Lourdes tell me the healings happen when they bring the Eucharist out. The focal point of the healing is usually around the Eucharist.”
No one knows better than Father Roy Henderson of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Bridgeport, Conn. When he was a teen and met a little boy named Chris who had cancer of the stomach, back and brain, he remembered something his mother said to him as a young boy.
They were Methodists, but, showing him a picture of Lourdes, she told him, “One day you are going to go there.” As the 18-year-old, Henderson decided to get Chris to Lourdes but the boy was too sick to travel. Young Henderson flew alone to get a bottle of water from Lourdes.
After he did, he decided to let the water dribble slowly over his own left hand. He was born with severe cerebral palsy and had no bones, only cartilage, in the fingers of his hand.
Here’s how he describes what happened next: “My whole arm stretched out like someone was pulling it. My fingers popped like popcorn from the inside out. The bones grew! There was no pain. My arm’s not perfect, but as I tell the young kids today, God enabled me to do the one thing I need to do as a priest: say Mass. God doesn’t want perfection; he just wants willing respondents.”
“I couldn’t be a Methodist and a minister and still pray the Rosary and honor Our Lady of Lourdes with prayers,” says Father Henderson. He became Catholic and answered God’s call to the priesthood.
His own healing gift broke out one year after he went to Lourdes. For the past 17 years, he has celebrated healing Masses in his diocese and in several other states.
Today he says of Our Lady of Lourdes, “She is the stem of my chalice.” And the healing he’s most grateful for? “She brought to me the reality of the Eucharist.”
One needn’t travel to France for that greatest of all healing touches.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.