Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I observed some parishes doing a healing Mass. It seems that they have different ways of doing it. How do we do a healing Mass? Is there a rite for it? Thank you. — A.E.P., Leyte, Philippines
A: We answered a similar question in 2009 and will reuse it in part, albeit adding some new data.
The closest thing to universal norms regarding “healing Masses” would be the 2000 instruction on “Prayers for Healing,” issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In this brief yet dense instruction the congregation first explains the reasons for the document:
“Prayer for the restoration of health is, therefore, part of the Church’s experience in every age, including our own. What in some ways is new is the 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, giving rise to the expectation of the same phenomenon in other such gatherings. In the same context, 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; this is the particular responsibility of the Church’s authorities, who are to watch over and give appropriate norms for the proper functioning of liturgical celebrations.
“It has seemed opportune, therefore, to publish an Instruction, in accordance with canon 34 of the Code of Canon Law, above all as a help to local Ordinaries so that the faithful may be better guided in this area, though promoting what is good and correcting what is to be avoided.”
In order that the norms should be theologically well-grounded, the document first presents an overview of the doctrine on prayer for healing according to Catholic tradition.
It does so in five sections, to wit: 1) Sickness and healing: their meaning and value in the economy of salvation; 2) The desire for healing and prayer to obtain it; 3) The “charism of healing” in the New Testament; 4) Prayers to obtain healing from God in the Church’s tradition, 5) The “charism of healing” in the present-day context.
Only once the foundation has been laid does the instruction endeavor to give precise norms. These norms embrace all forms of prayer for healing. The norms are:
“Art. 1 — It is licit for every member of the faithful to pray to God for healing. When this is organized in a church or other sacred place, it is appropriate that such prayers be led by an ordained minister.
“Art. 2 — Prayers for healing are considered to be liturgical if they are part of the liturgical books approved by the Church’s competent authority; otherwise, they are non-liturgical.
“Art. 3 — § 1. Liturgical prayers for healing are celebrated according to the rite prescribed in the Ordo benedictionis infirmorum of the Rituale Romanum and with the proper sacred vestments indicated therein.
“§ 2. In conformity with what is stated in the Praenotanda, V., De aptationibus quae Conferentiae Episcoporum competunt of the same Rituale Romanum, Conferences of Bishops may introduce those adaptations to the Rite of Blessings of the Sick which are held to be pastorally useful or possibly necessary, after prior review by the Apostolic See.
“Art. 4 — § 1. The Diocesan Bishop has the right to issue norms for his particular Church regarding liturgical services of healing, following can. 838 § 4.
“§ 2. Those who prepare liturgical services of healing must follow these norms in the celebration of such services.
“§ 3. Permission to hold such services must be explicitly given, even if they are organized by Bishops or Cardinals, or include such as participants. Given a just and proportionate reason, the Diocesan Bishop has the right to forbid even the participation of an individual Bishop.
“Art. 5 — § 1. Non-liturgical prayers for healing are distinct from liturgical celebrations, as gatherings for prayer or for reading of the word of God; these also fall under the vigilance of the local Ordinary in accordance with can. 839 § 2.
“§ 2. Confusion between such free non-liturgical prayer meetings and liturgical celebrations properly so-called is to be carefully avoided.
“§ 3. Anything resembling hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism, above all on the part of those who are in charge of such gatherings, must not take place.
“Art. 6 — The use of means of communication (in particular, television) in connection with prayers for healing, falls under the vigilance of the Diocesan Bishop in conformity with can. 823 and the norms established by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Instruction of March 30, 1992.
“Art. 7 — § 1. Without prejudice to what is established above in art. 3 or to the celebrations for the sick provided in the Church’s liturgical books, prayers for healing — whether liturgical or non-liturgical — must not be introduced into the celebration of the Holy Mass, the sacraments, or the Liturgy of the Hours.
“§ 2. In the celebrations referred to § 1, one may include special prayer intentions for the healing of the sick in the general intercessions or prayers of the faithful, when this is permitted.
“Art. 8 — § 1. The ministry of exorcism must be exercised in strict dependence on the Diocesan Bishop, and in keeping with the norm of can. 1172, the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of September 29, 1985, and the Rituale Romanum.
“§ 2. The prayers of exorcism contained in the Rituale Romanum must remain separate from healing services, whether liturgical or non-liturgical.
“§ 3. It is absolutely forbidden to insert such prayers of exorcism into the celebration of the Holy Mass, the sacraments, or the Liturgy of the Hours.
“Art. 9 — Those who direct healing services, whether liturgical or non-liturgical, are to strive to maintain a climate of peaceful devotion in the assembly and to exercise the necessary prudence if healings should take place among those present; when the celebration is over, any testimony can be collected with honesty and accuracy, and submitted to the proper ecclesiastical authority.
“Art. 10 — Authoritative intervention by the Diocesan Bishop is proper and necessary when abuses are verified in liturgical or non-liturgical healing services, or when there is obvious scandal among the community of the faithful, or when there is a serious lack of observance of liturgical or disciplinary norms.”
Article 7’s prohibition of inserting prayers for healing within Mass obviously does not exclude the celebration of the Mass for the Sick found in the Roman Missal, or other similar votive Masses. It means that Mass must not be used as a vehicle for other purposes, even praiseworthy ones.
A recent example of norms issued by bishops would be those promulgated by a regional conference of Bishops in Northern Italy in October 2018: “Disciplinary norms regarding so-called ‘Healing Masses’ (Messe di Guarigione).”
Although these episcopal norms repeat much of what has been said above, they also express the bishops’ experience and reflection upon these practices over almost 20 years and address some abuses that might have crept in. In this way, knowledge of these norms might assist other bishops who desire to formulate their own norms and also guide priests and other pastoral agents as to best practices.
The following is my translation of the essential elements of these norms:
“1. Whoever desires to program liturgical celebrations with the goal of invoking healing from God (specifically the so-called ‘Healing Masses’) must request and obtain an explicit written permission from the diocesan bishop, even if proposed by or with the participation of superiors of religious congregations, bishops or Cardinals. Such requests, which are to be renewed annually, must include the time and place of the celebration.
“2. Monthly celebrations are henceforth excluded; such celebrations are not permitted on Sundays and Solemnities.
“3. Priests are not allowed to preside or concelebrate outside of their own parishes or diocese.
“4. During the celebration of Holy Mass, the sacraments, or the Liturgy of the Hours the introduction of prayers for Healing, whether liturgical or non-liturgical,is not allowed. However, it is possible, during the above celebrations, to include special prayer intentions for the healing of the sick in the general intercessions or prayers of the faithful, when this is permitted.
“5. In the case of an authorized Eucharistic Celebration the following outline must be followed:
“a) Regarding prayers: with respect to the norms regarding the use of ‘Votive Masses’ or ‘Masses for various needs’ only formularies present in the Roman Missal may be used;
“b) With respect to the Rite of the Mass the Roman Missal must be followed exactly, avoiding all abuse or undue creativity;
“c) It is possible, after Mass is over, to propose Eucharistic Adoration and conclude it with a single Eucharistic blessing given from the sanctuary. It must be recalled, however, that exposition only to impart Benediction is forbidden (Introduction to the Rite of Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass, no. 97 );
“d) For eventual use of the gesture of imposition of hands accompanied by the prayer of blessing, that which is foreseen in the Book of Blessings must be followed using the chapter for blessing of the sick and the prayer with imposition of hands. [The Italian text is Chapter VI, prayer 244. Numbers vary with translations. In the ‘Shorter Book of Blessings’ from the Conference of England and Wales it is prayer no. 358. In the U.S. ‘Book of Blessings,’ it is no. 392.]
“As well as the above, it must also be recalled that:
“The ministry of exorcism must be exercised in strict dependence on the Diocesan Bishop, and in keeping with the norm of can. 1172, the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of September 29, 1985, and the ‘Rite of Exorcism and Prayers for Particular Circumstances,’ in effect since March 31, 2002.
“The prayers of exorcism contained in the ‘Rite of Exorcism and Prayers for Particular Circumstances’ must remain distinct from those used in healing celebrations, whether liturgical or non-liturgical.
“It is absolutely forbidden to insert these prayers into the celebration of the Holy Mass, the sacraments, or the Liturgy of the Hours.
“Finally it is recalled that ‘Authoritative intervention by the Diocesan Bishop is proper and necessary when abuses are verified in liturgical or non-liturgical healing services, or when there is obvious scandal among the community of the faithful, or when there is a serious lack of observance of liturgical or disciplinary norms (CDF, Instruction, no. 10).’
“These norms were unanimously approved by the Bishops of Piedmont and Val d’Aosta united in assembly at Susa on September 18, 2018, and enter in force on October 1, 2018.”
Diocesan norms from other countries are basically similar to these but also sometimes address difficulties that are of local origin.
For example, some dioceses in South America mention that it is permitted to carry the monstrance in procession within the church during adoration but maintaining a sense of true respect and unction.
Another norm reminds priests that only the head may be touched during blessings and that the lay faithful should not practice the imposition of hands for a blessing of the sick. Others remind priest that the holy oils may be used exclusively for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and never for other healing services.
Some norms forbid all appearance of seeking money during healing celebrations and forbid priests and laity from requesting payment for their services. Indeed, one Colombian bishop addressed this question in very severe terms that included even the use of the expression “Healing Masses,” to wit:
“In the name of Christ and of the Church I absolutely forbid calling the Holy Eucharist ‘Healing Masses.’ Such an expression is an abuse that verges on schism and heresy. This description is tendentious and implies monetary interest.
“In all parishes, it is obligatory to publicly expose the diocesan stipends …. No priest may exceed these stipends.”
While few other bishops are so critical of the term “Healing Masses,” practically all consider it an inappropriate expression. Indeed, several diocesan norms insist that there is only one Holy Mass and recommend dropping this characterization altogether.
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