Q: What is a “healing Mass,” and what norms direct its celebration?
A: The ministry of healing is among the central works of the Church, as it was for Jesus himself. As Pope Benedict XVI remarked, “Healing is an essential dimension of the apostolic mission and of Christian faith in general…. [It is] a religion of healing. When understood at a sufficiently deep level, this expresses the entire content of ‘redemption’” (Jesus of Nazareth, 176). Consequently, the Church offers direction in how Christ’s saving work continues in her rites today.
In its Instruction on Prayers for Healing ([IPH] 2000), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted the recent “proliferation of prayer meetings, at times combined with liturgical celebrations, for the purpose of obtaining healing from God. In many cases, the occurrence of healings has been proclaimed…[and] appeal is sometimes made to a claimed charism of healing. These prayer meetings for obtaining healing present the question of their proper discernment from a liturgical perspective” (Introduction; cf. Code of Canon Law, 34). This phenomenon continues today, and so it seems helpful to recall the Church’s teaching on the proper relationship between the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the charism of healing, and in particular the question of a “healing Mass.”
“Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit” (Pastoral Care of the Sick [PCS]. 1). The redemption wrought in Christ heals the wounds of sin and death that “entered the world” through the enemy (Wisdom 2:24; see also Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 400). Healing in the life and ministry of Jesus as well as in the time after Pentecost “manifest the victory of the kingdom of God over every kind of evil, and become the symbol of the restoration to health of the whole human person, body and soul” (IPH, I.1). “In this age of the Church, Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this age,” known as the “sacramental economy” (CCC, 1076).
Although the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is the ordinary means by which God makes present his healing work of salvation, it is not the only way he has chosen to dispense his healing. In the economy of salvation, the “Holy Spirit gives to some a special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord” (CCC, 1509, emphasis added) and to “obtain graces of healing for others” (IPH, I.3; see also I.5). From the apostolic period the charism of healing was exercised by both laity and clergy. Craig Keener, in his exhaustive study on miracles, notes that the Christian apologists of the second and third centuries “depict not only apostolic leaders but also ordinary Christians as miracle workers.” At the same time, in her liturgy the Church “has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation” (CCC, 1512).
Properly speaking, the only legitimate “Healing Mass” is the celebration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick within the Mass using the formularies as found in two liturgical books. The first formulary is the “Mass for the Sick” in the Roman Missal–Third Edition (Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions, 45) with two options for the final blessing given in the ritual Mass “For the Conferral of the Anointing of the Sick.” The second formulary is found in the Pastoral Care of the Sick, 131–148. This “formulary…continues in force…because those texts are located in an approved ritual book (Pastoral Care of the Sick) and so are still permitted for liturgical use in the dioceses of the United States” (BCDW Newsletter, May 2013). This Mass begins with the usual greeting followed by the “Reception of the Sick,” where the purpose of the liturgy is announced: “that the sick may be restored to health by the gift of this mercy and made whole in his fullness” (Order for the Anointing of the Sick, 135A). The Liturgy of Anointing of the Sick follows the liturgy of the word and culminates in the liturgy of the Eucharist and in the reception of the Holy Eucharist. A litany begins the anointing liturgy, followed by the silent laying on of hands by the priest. This prayer culminates in a prayer of thanksgiving over the oil, followed by the anointing of the sick person and a post-anointing prayer. The liturgical books include a proper preface along with special intercessions for Eucharistic Prayers I–III.
The liturgical actions manifest the “presence of Christ” the healer (CCC, 1509) and are distinguished by “signs perceptible to the senses”: His assembly (praying & singing), his minister, his Scriptures, and his Sacraments—“especially under the Eucharistic species” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). The essential liturgical aspects (priest, silence, laying on of hands, anointing—cf. CCC, 1519, Order for the Anointing of the Sick, 5), celebrated either within or outside of Mass, form “a sacramental action: anointing of the sick with oil and prayer ‘over him’ and not simply ‘for him,’ as if it were only a prayer of intercession or petition; it is rather an efficacious action on the sick person” (IPH, I.3).
As with most liturgical issues, problems arise when non-liturgical signs are imposed on the liturgical rites to mix the liturgical with non-liturgical signs. Healing prayer, whether liturgical or non-liturgical, should be characterized by “a climate of peaceful devotion in the assembly” and not “hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism” (IPH, II. Art. 9 and 5.3). While prayer meetings and the sacramental liturgy are not opposed to one another, “confusion between such free non-liturgical prayer meetings and liturgical celebrations properly so-called is to be carefully avoided” (IPH, II. Art 5.2). Indeed, “prayers for healing” and prayers for exorcism, “whether liturgical or non-liturgical—must not be introduced into the celebration of the Holy Mass, the sacraments, or the Liturgy of the Hours” (IPH, II. Art. 7.1 and 8.3).