National Catholic Reporter ®

November 16, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 12

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A remarkable, hidden summit
where laity got to quiz the curia

I have so far avoided mentioning the summit’s topic. The subject was “Prayer for Healing and the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church.” I would implore even those left cold by claims of healing, speaking in tongues or casting out demons to read on, however, because there’s more at stake.

Though you didn’t read about it in the world press, a remarkable summit took place Nov. 11-13 at the Sanctuary of Divine Love on the southern outskirts of Rome. A three-day session brought together curial heavyweights and some of the key figures of one of the most controversial spiritual currents in post-Vatican II Catholicism. 

     As the event began, Cardinal James Stafford, an American and head of the Pontifical Council for Laity, promised that he would have his ears open, seeking to learn from the experiences and insights represented in the room. “We in the curia have much to learn from you,” I heard Stafford say during a coffee break. He was a man of his word, making his scarlet zucchetto visible in the front row during all the sessions, taking notes, and asking probing questions. 

     In addition, the secretaries of two of the most powerful offices in the curia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship, shed their customary anonymity to explain in person the logic behind recent Vatican documents and disciplinary moves. One of them, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone of the CDF, actually fielded a few tough questions.

     It was, all things considered, a striking example of the way dialogue in the church can work.

     I have so far avoided mentioning the summit’s topic. The subject was “Prayer for Healing and the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church.” I would implore even those left cold by claims of healing, speaking in tongues or casting out demons to read on, however, because there’s more at stake.

     An all-star lineup from the charismatic world, above all from the United States, was present: Third Order Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlan, chancellor of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio; Ralph Martin, a lay charismatic activist with a TV show on the EWTN network; Francis MacNutt, a former Dominican who now runs an ecumenical spiritual healing enterprise in Jacksonville, Florida; and Fr. Rufus Pereira, an Indian priest and president of the International Association of Catholic Exorcists.

     The summit was motivated by a Sept. 14, 2000, Vatican document entitled “Instruction on prayers to obtain healing from God.” The document kicked up some dust in Italy because it was styled by the press as a clampdown on perennial Vatican bad boy Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. In the English-speaking world, however, it drew zero interest, because it came out just nine days after the ultra-controversial Dominus Iesus.

     In general terms, the instruction stipulates that the ordinary rules for celebration of the Mass must not be set aside in order to accommodate healings and exorcisms; that extra-liturgical healing services must have the approval of the bishop; and that charismatic individuals said to have a “gift” of healing must not supplant the sacraments as the basic way grace is distributed.

     For charismatics, who believe they have rediscovered the primitive Christian practice of working miracles in Jesus’ name, the document felt like a cheap shot. It seemed an instance of the institutional church being unable, or unwilling, to accept the freedom of the Spirit to move as it wills. 

     One of the more electric moments during the summit came when MacNutt rose to put a question to Bertone. MacNutt said that in recent decades an “extraordinary revolution has taken place in Catholic thought.” As a young priest, he said, he would have thought it arrogant to ask God to heal the sickness of one lone person. Today, he says, he believes “something wonderful might happen” when he prays, because he and others have witnessed the power of the Spirit at work.

     Don’t church leaders, MacNutt implied, need to learn from this grassroots experience?

     Bertone was gracious. “If the instruction is applied carefully by priests, it should promote prayers for healing,” he said.

     At the end of the three-day session, it was clear that tensions remained. Many were frustrated that there hadn’t been more direct exchange about the document. One American bishop told me he was going home with no better sense of how to “pastor” the new Vatican rules.

     Stafford responded to these rumblings in his closing remarks.

     Speaking of the Roman curia, he admitted bluntly: “Yes, we are a scandal at times.” Stafford said he knew people felt confused and in some cases embittered, and he pleaded for patience.

     “In the contemporary church, this kind of prayer for healing is new, and it will take time for you to help the hierarchical church understand it,” he said. “But brothers and sisters, you can’t be like Luther and refuse to accept the Petrine element in the church. Your holiness will have to take shape in interaction with the Petrine and apostolic elements.” He promised to continue the dialogue, to continue to learn, and it seemed obvious he meant it.

     It would be easy to be grumpy about the summit, to wish that insights from the laity on other key issues — say, birth control or the role of women — would draw a similarly attentive response. 

     Yet charismatics are issuing some of the same challenges to the institutional church as Catholics with different theological points of departure. They worry about the repression of new ideas, of spontaneity and responsiveness to the Spirit, in the name of maintaining clerical control. They want leaders to be more open to the experience, the sense of the faith, bubbling up from below. They insist that priestly ordination is not the only way God marks someone as a channel of grace.

     That these ideas were given such a prominent hearing by the curia, for whatever motive, strikes me as good news — in its own way, perhaps, a kind of miracle.

* * *

Two marginal notes:

     In the course of the summit, I had one of those experiences that happen only to reporters on the Vatican beat. It went down this way: I showed up a few minutes early on the first day, and asked an organizer for the text of Bertone’s talk. She happily photocopied it for me. Later, after Bertone finished speaking, I was waiting to interview him when a curial priest (I will do him the favor of omitting his name) swooped in and led Bertone aside. A whispered conversation ensued, then the priest turned to me and told me that Bertone’s text was preliminary, he did not want it published, and I had to give it back. 

     I knew full well that the printed copy was not what Bertone had actually said, because I had scribbled notes all over the ten pages. These were my notes, however, and I was not about to hand them over. The priest tried to grab the pages out of my hands, and just when things were on the brink of getting ugly, Stafford stepped in. He uttered those two magic words that, when they descend from the lips of a cardinal, make all manner of problems go away: Va bene, he said, Italian for “it’s okay,” or in this instance, “back off.” The priest, obviously not happy, nevertheless retreated. 

     One small victory for the press.

     As for Bertone, I asked him when we might expect the best-known healer of all, Milingo, to be back in business. (Bertone ran the show for the Vatican during last summer’s soap opera surrounding Milingo’s on-again, off-again marriage). Italian papers have been full of speculation about where Milingo is and what he’s going to do.

     Here’s what Bertone told me:

     “Archbishop Milingo is continuing a period of spiritual exercises and of reflection, with great joy and with serenity. All these reports of pressures brought to bear on him are false. Likewise, reports that he was sent into exile are false. He’s not in Canada, for example, where it can get as cold as forty degrees below zero … This would not be the best place for an African, I don’t think, it would be a penance much too harsh! These are, unfortunately, all inventions of journalists. 

     “When this period of reflection is finished, perhaps next year, though a precise moment has to be decided with him, we will be looking for a place where he can again take up his episcopal ministry. It should be a specific spot with a community of priests, a community of his sisters, where the faithful can visit him and pray with him, and where he can pray and continue his activity. It will probably be in Italy.”

     It would appear, therefore, that the final chapter in the Milingo saga hasn’t yet been written.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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