A new book says prayer for healing can complement the Sacrament of Penance

Pope Francis has memorably described the Church as a “field hospital” for the wounded. The image resonated with me; I know several people, Catholic or otherwise, who are wounded in some way, emotionally and psychologically. Thus, when I read Healing Wounds in the Field Hospital of the Church, edited by Alan Guile and Fr Jim McManus CSsR and published by Gracewing, I was immediately interested to discover more on the subject.

The book, the result of a Symposium that took place at Oscott in April 2015, which includes contributions by those involved in particular areas of healing, such as healing from abortion, childhood wounds, abusive relationships, addictions and spiritual oppression, is concerned with the ministry of inner healing. My initial response, “This is for charismatics, not for Catholics” shows how limited (and prejudiced) my understanding was. So I asked Alan Guile, the co-editor, what led him into this ministry.

He tells me that he and his wife began praying with individuals during days of renewal at a convent in Harrogate in 1973 and that “gradually a small number began to come to our home for prayer ministry for a variety of problems.” The numbers grew. How would he define “inner healing”? Alan explains that it “involves the actions of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit towards healing and restoring us to be able to live life in the fullness which Jesus suffered and died to bring us.”

Healing, he continues, has an important spiritual component, “the healing of sinfulness which includes our wounded reactions to what others have done to us. We need reconciliation not only with God and others, but within ourselves because frequently we do not sufficiently love and accept ourselves and carry burdens of guilt and shame.”

It also has a psychological aspect: “We need healing of memories and buried painful emotions. People need help and encouragement about how they can cooperate prayerfully with Christ towards their healing.” There is also a ministry of deliverance which is “open to lay people as well as priests and is quite distinct from the rare cases of exorcism which may only be dealt with by a priest expressly authorised by the bishop.”

I am curious to know what this ministry can add to the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession? Fr Jim McManus clarifies this, explaining that “The penitent brings both the sin and the wound of sin to the Sacrament. Because there has been an almost exclusive emphasis on the forgiveness of sins over the centuries, the penitent may not even mention the wounds that those sins inflicted. Yet often the sin the penitent brings is the result of the wound. What a penitent needs is the healing of the wound of sin that caused his bad reaction.”

He makes it clear that “Lay ministers do not celebrate the Sacrament for those who confess to them; they minister the healing of the wound of sin. That is why we speak of an inner healing ministry.”

Alan Guile adds the reflection that “some people may go to Confession for many years and not receive the peace and healing that Christ wants to bring. Both Sacraments and prayer ministry are complementary means by which Christ can bring inner peace.”

If this is the case, why are bishops and priests generally reluctant to implement healing services as a regular part of parish and diocesan spiritual life? Alan tells me that although over the years he has been personally involved with six diocesan bishops to try to build up inner healing ministries, for various reasons they have as yet not borne fruit. He also believes that overwork on the part of priests, their increased average age, some demoralisation – particularly over the sex abuse scandals – and their lack of personal experience of their penitents’ wounds, are factors. “Many people”, he suggests, “feel unable to reveal their deepest hurts to priests.”

The editors both agree, as they write in their book, that “in most of our parishes we have…a high proportion of people who would describe themselves as practising Catholics who have been led to believe that all God and the Church expect of them is to attend Mass once a week and that they do not need to give any further time and effort.”

Fr McManus reminds me of their book’s title, adding “If bishops and priests begin to accept Pope Francis’s vision of the Church as a “field hospital after battle” in which our first task is “to heal the wounds”, they will have taken the first step in exercising the healing ministry. They will be “thinking with the Church.” He states with conviction, “Once they begin to see the need for healing within the “field hospital” their pastoral practice will begin to change.”

Alan Guile is convinced that “the more parts of the Body of Christ that are praying with expectant faith in the power of the Holy Spirit for Jesus’s inner healing and peace, the more deeply greater numbers of people will be evangelised.”