Of “Healing Priests” and Other Strange Intrusions

What is absent in enthusiasm is a humility before the example of the saints, who never prayed with external display or manic delirium but always with a calm and chastened manner.

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But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to the Father which is in secret: and thy father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:6)

Addressing this subject is a task fraught with danger. For the doctrinal vacuum created in the past sixty years of “spirit of the Council” convulsions has left not a few Catholics stranded in a kind of no-man’s-land. Unanchored by the hallowed Tradition and traditions of the Church’s millennial treasures, they find themselves scrounging for scraps off the tables of secularism and therapeutic kitsch. With liturgical offerings that often impersonate third-rate vaudeville, their souls starve.

With good intentions, they find refuge in a kind of hysterical prayer—put another way, a sort of soothing emotional swoon. Since this refuge is born of genuine spiritual longing, it is hard to hold it to strict theological/ascetical standards. But be held to them they must. Otherwise, added to the doctrinal bedlam there will be spiritual decadence, a salve which soothes but does not sanctify. Some may argue that it is a halfway house to authentic prayer, or better than nothing. But this sentimentality is addictive and can render the soul permanently impaired. Raised on a diet of pretzels and beer, the taste of caviar is unendurable.

Msgr. Knox gave this thorny problem of emotion/hysteria in prayer magisterial treatment in his classic Enthusiasm. He traces the dark cul-de-sacs of emotion in prayer from the early Church to the nineteenth century. Each time it rears its head, a more serious fissure is to blame. Msgr. Knox stated:

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Enthusiasm…[has] at [its] root a different theology of grace. Our traditional doctrine is that grace perfects nature, elevates it to a higher pitch, so that it can bear its part in the music of eternity, but leaves it nature still. The assumption of the enthusiast is bolder and simpler: for him, grace has destroyed nature, and replaced it. The saved man has come out into a new order of being, with a new set of faculties, which are proper to his state… He decries the use of human reason as a guide to any sort of religious truth. A direct indication of the divine will is communicated to him at every turn, if only he will consent to abandon the arm of flesh—man’s miserable intellect, fatally obscured by the Fall.

This serious detachment from the ascetical/spiritual tradition of the Church leaves the soul lost at sea, accountable to nothing but his own excitations. Chesterton names this the “god within.” In a famous passage from Orthodoxy, his scathing assessment:

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within…That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the inner light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any on his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the inner light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

What is absent in enthusiasm is a humility before the example of the saints, who never prayed with external display or manic delirium but always with a calm and chastened manner. Shall we say, like the Publican: “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breasts, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  

St. Cyprian should not be forgotten in his Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer

When we pray, our words should be calm, modest and disciplined. Let us reflect that we are standing before God. We should please him both by our bodily posture and the manner of our speech. It is characteristic of the vulgar to shout and make a noise, not those who are modest. On the contrary, they should employ a quiet tone in their prayer.

It is precisely a waning of that humility which creates the fertile conditions for extravagant and false spiritual phenomena to flourish. If the soul does not take its delight from obeying the Church and her tradition, it begins only to delight in itself. Sadly, this narcissism leads men out of the Catholic Church. These departures are clearly seen in Catholics who intentionally embrace error.  It is precisely a waning of humility which creates the fertile conditions for extravagant and false spiritual phenomena to flourish.Tweet This

However, they are no less present in Catholics who revel in enthusiasms clearly contrary to the tradition of the saints. While the intellect is easily seen to be misled by heresies, frenzied emotions mimicking devotion are equally deadly. Both leave men marooned, alone, and without the Church.

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of today’s “healing priest,” making his appearance here and there to the delight of the masses. To be sure, saintly priests with the charism of healing (gratia gratis data—grace given for the benefit of others) have always adorned the Church, winning the admiration of the faithful. The glaring difference between these canonized saints and the current crop of pretenders is that saints possessed humility while the latter only an appetite for self-promotion (one wonders if they are aware of John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease”).  

Memory may fail, but one does not seem to remember St. Padre Pio advertising Healing Masses. Or St. Vincent de Paul. Or any of the saints. This alone should be a monitum for Catholics rushing to star appearances of the “healing priest” du jour. If not that, then Luke 11:29: “it is a wicked and perverse generation that looks for signs and wonders.”

The true Catholic soul eschews anything which is novel, meretricious, or idiosyncratic. St. Vincent of Lerins’ (A.D. 434—Commonitorium) principle for the recognizability of true doctrine applies also to the realms of prayer and Catholic practice. His test consisted of weighing the conduct against three properties: semper, ubique, ab omnibus. In other words, if the practice cannot be verified as having been used always in the life of the Church, everywhere in all the places that the Church exists, and by all Catholics wherever they existed, the practice, or opinion, should be rejected. 

More simply, a Catholic ought to flee from any practice not embraced by the saints. True saints with the charism of healing, like St. Pio, loathed the spotlight. Even more loathsome to such men would be the moniker of “healing priests.” Such a pervasive humility marked their lives that their preferred place of meeting the faithful was in the confessional box and not on the stage. Ah, the staginess. What else can we call the hysteria and shouting, the fainting and trembling?

Where in the history of Catholic devotion can we find these manifestations except in periods of doctrinal laxity and disciplinary decline (again, Knox’s Enthusiasm)? On November 23rd, 2001, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promulgated a seventeen-page “Instructions on Prayers for Healing.” Therein we find, “anything resembling hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism should be absent from such gatherings, above all on the part of those in charge.” 

Moreover, it goes on further to warn that prayers for healing must remain separate from the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments. Of course, the “Instruction” was responding to a whole subculture of hysterical movements that have mushroomed in the Church for the past half-century. None of them seems to pass the Vincentian test. 

The Church rests her teaching on the canonical writings of two of her greatest saints: St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. They stand in the pantheon of doctors of the Church. Indeed, she has called them her Doctors of Prayer. Both are absolutely clear and thoroughly unambiguous about the questions we consider. St. John of the Cross seems like a chemist labeling a bottle with skull and crossbones when he abjures emotion in prayer. Listen to his serious caution on emotional experience and similar phenomena in his Ascent of Mount Carmel:

We must never rely upon them or accept them, but must always fly from them, without trying to ascertain whether they be good or evil: for the more completely exterior or corporeal they are, the less certainly they are from God. It is more proper and habitual for God to communicate to the soul, where there is more security and profit, than to the senses wherein there is ordinarily much danger and deception… So he that esteems such things errs greatly and exposes himself to great peril of being deceived… And thus it may always be supposed that such things as these are more likely to be of the devil than of God, for the devil has more influence on that which is exterior and corporeal, and can deceive a person more easily there by that which is more interior and spiritual… He knows how to insinuate into the soul a secret satisfaction with itself… These representations and feelings, therefore, must always be rejected: for, even though some of them be of God, He is not offended by their rejection, nor is the effect and fruit which he desires to produce in the person by means of them any the less surely received because they are rejected and not desired. (Book 2, Ch. 11, sections 2, 3, 5 and 8)

St. Teresa of Avila is no less harsh in her warning about eccentric displays in prayer or paranormal exhibitionism in priests. She merely stands in an unbroken tradition of saints and magisterial teaching. Perhaps that is the operative word in all this: Tradition, to be understood precisely in the Pauline sense (1 Timothy 6:20) as that which has been handed down by the Church of the ages. In her Interior Castle she writes:

Those deceive themselves who believe that union with God consists in ecstasies or raptures, and in the enjoyment of Him. For it consists in nothing except the surrender and subjection of our will, with our thoughts, words, and actions, to the will of God, and it is perfect when the will finds itself separated from everything and attached only to that of God, so that every one of its movements is solely and purely the volition of God. (Book 3)

In a word, we must all try to pray like St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross and follow priests who act like St. John Bosco or the Cure of Ars. Any deviation from that norm should make any Catholic terribly suspicious. 

In these charged times, proper doses of suspicion are in short supply. It might be well for us to remember the sobering warning of Victor Hugo: “To each man there lies the choice to make of his soul either a sanctuary or a sewer.”


  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

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