Faith can play a role in physical health
A leper. A man born blind. A crippled woman. A paralyzed man.
The Gospels are filled with stories of people whom Jesus miraculously healed. Healing was a key part of Jesus’ three years of public ministry, and it is a ministry that the Catholic Church continues to this day, noted Father Frank Lioi.
The church’s ministry of healing does not always result in miraculous cures, although such wonders do occur. In early July, for instance, Pope Francis formally recognized a miraculous healing attributed to the intercession of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, sixth bishop of the Diocese of Rochester (1966-69) who passed away in 1979. When an Illinois mother gave birth in 2010 to a boy who was not breathing and had no heartbeat, she prayed for the intercession of the prelate who was born in El Paso, Ill., in the Diocese of Peoria. Her son made a miraculous recovery and remains healthy today, according to reporting by Catholic News Service.
Cancer patients may be praying for similarly dramatic cures when they gather once a month at the shrine to St. Peregrine at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Auburn, where Father Lioi is pastor. They are joined at the shrine by cancer survivors, caregivers and loved ones of those with cancer, as well as those suffering from other serious illnesses, Father Lioi said, and they all share a desire for healing.
Father Lioi leads the monthly prayer services for the intercession of St. Peregrine, the patron of those afflicted with cancer, leg ailments or other life-threatening illnesses. After the services, participants have the opportunity to be blessed with a relic of St. Peregrine.
“I’ve not heard of any cures specifically, but people do say (the service) brings them comfort,” Father Lioi remarked.
Such comfort in itself can help facilitate the physical healing process, according to Dr. Thomas Carroll, a doctor of internal medicine and palliative care who serves on the faculty of the University of Rochester.
“I think it’s hard to measure, but we do know that when people are under stress their immune systems, for example, don’t work as well as they do when they’re not under stress,” said Carroll, who also is president of the Finger Lakes Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.
The immune system’s response to stress is among the factors pointing to a connection between mental and physical health, he said.
“We know that there is that connection. We think about this mind-body dichotomy, but the dichotomy doesn’t exist. It’s all very much integrated,” Carroll said.
Integration of mind, body and spirit has long been known by faith communities and increasingly has been recognized by the medical community.
“We’re not separate entities. It’s not body and soul. We’re one piece,” agreed Deacon Brian McNulty, health-care liaison for the Diocese of Rochester.
The connection between physical and mental health helps to explain why prayer and faith often play an important role in the healing process. Carroll said it’s common practice in the field of palliative care for doctors to engage their patients in conversations intended to assess the patients’ spiritual health and history. Some patients tell Carroll they believe they will go to heaven after they die, so they’re not worried or stressed about what will happen to them after death. Others tell Carroll that they’re angry with God or don’t know why bad things are happening to them.
Sometimes these conversations will prompt Carroll to suggest that a patient talk with a chaplain, a member of the clergy or someone from the patient’s particular faith background.
“If we tend to this psychological spiritual suffering, then we actually probably are impacting physical health as well,” he said.
Patients who are able to work through challenges in their spiritual life tend to improve both their quality of life as well as their ability to cope with the physical challenges they’re facing, Carroll said.
“Somehow God gives them strength, and even if the (physical) healing doesn’t take place, he gives them the strength to endure,” added Deacon Robert McCormick, chaplain at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell.
Receiving a terminal diagnosis or suddenly losing a loved one in an accident are terrible, traumatic situations that are always difficult to get through. But those who cannot rely upon their faith in God seem to struggle even more than those who can, Deacon McCormick said.
“I believe if they have God to ground themselves in and give them that strength and courage and peace of mind, it will be much more peaceful for them,” he said. “There’s a feeling of comfort and a feeling of peace that comes over a person when they pray.”
A similar sense of peace often comes over those who have received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, Father Lioi said. This sacrament, which he called the church’s preeminent source of healing of both body and spirit, is a continuation of Jesus’ own healing ministry.
“A lot of people think that the sacrament is a thing that they get, but it’s really an action of the Lord taking place,” he said. “It is the action of Jesus in the present day and age. It’s done through the ministry of the priest, but really the forgiveness is coming from Jesus himself.”
Sometimes the healing that comes through this sacrament is physical, but many times it’s spiritual, Father Lioi added. Those who receive the sacrament feel the Lord’s presence with them at this very critical time in their lives, and that brings them peace, he noted.
“I think they feel a calmness about them for some reason, and I think it is because it’s the Lord touching them,” Father Lioi said. “Whether they’re sick, seriously ill or even dying, they know the Lord is with them, so it’s a very powerful sacrament.”