Jesus Christ, in his earthly lifetime, showed himself to be the divine physician, healing bodies and spirits by his power and goodness, as God shining through his fully human heart. Jesus shared this healing ministry with his disciples both during his public ministry and after his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. We have considered in previous reflections the ways in which Jesus’ disciples performed bodily healings in his name. Jesus’ own healing power was present and at work in them. Jesus also shared with his disciples and, in a particular way, with his twelve apostles, his power to forgive sins and heal souls. Jesus commanded them to baptize, forgive sins in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to celebrate the Eucharist, the sacrament of his saving body and blood.
The healing power of the apostles was not something they possessed on their own. It was the power of Jesus working in them. Saint Peter testifies to this after healing a man who was paralyzed. “Why,” he asks his fellow Israelites, “are you amazed at this, and why do you look so intently at us as if we had made him walk by our own power or piety?” (Acts 3:12). “It was in the name of Jesus the Nazorean,” Peter proclaimed, “whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed” (Acts 4:10). Jesus had ascended into heaven, but by his gift of the Holy Spirit, his healing power remained present and active in the world. The apostles were given Jesus’ power to heal through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But Pentecost was not just about the empowerment of the apostles; it was about the birth of the Church.
Jesus’ healing power, present and manifest in the work of his apostles, continues to be present and manifest in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Saint Paul teaches us that the Church is the Body of Christ. Within this body, different gifts are given to different members according to the purpose of the one Spirit. Saint Paul names some of the gifts God has bestowed upon the Church’s members. Among the gifted, he says, some are “apostles,” and some receive “gifts of healing” (1 Cor 12:28).
These gifts were exercised in the early church in various ways. The apostles baptized, forgave sins, celebrated the Eucharist, and healed. They also handed on their ministry to others: bishops, priests, and deacons who continued the healing ministry entrusted to the apostles (see 1 Tim 3:1, Tit 1:5, Acts 6:1-6). The letter of James gives us a particular insight into the healing ministry exercised by priests. “Is anyone among you sick?” James asks, “He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (Jas 5:14-15).
Those with “gifts of healing” also continued to exercise Jesus’ healing ministry. These gifts are examples of what theologians call “charismatic gifts.” That means that they are given to some members of the Church for the benefit of the whole Church. We are probably safe in assuming that these healing gifts were exercised in the early Church in ordinary ways by, for example, physicians and nurses, and also in miraculous ways by people who healed through the extraordinary power of Jesus, as Saint Peter did when he healed the paralyzed man.
The church continues in our own time to make the healing work of Jesus present and active in the world. She does this by the continuation of apostolic ministry in the bishops, who are the apostles’ successors, and in the priests and deacons who share in their ordained ministry, most especially in the administration of the sacraments. The sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick are most commonly recognized as sacraments of healing. However, all the sacraments and the entire sacramental and liturgical life of the Church make the Lord’s healing grace present and active in the lives of his people.
The church also continues the healing ministry of Jesus in her members whom God raises up as healers. This continues to happen in both ordinary and miraculous ways. We might think, in this connection, of the many saints who brought about wondrous works of healing by the extraordinary power of Jesus or the many healings recorded at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. We might also think of the saints who demonstrated heroic virtue through simple, ordinary acts of healing, like Saint Catherine of Siena or Saint Theresa of Calcutta. However, the Church also extends the healing work of Jesus through members less well known. Through the innumerable nurses, doctors, and other health care practitioners who minister to their sick brothers and sisters in His name, Jesus continues to heal.