Healing ministry celebrates 25 years

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It was well past Isaac's bedtime, but he was alert and calm as Deacon Leo Flynn knelt down near the altar to pray over the 5-year-old and his mother, Sarah, who brushed away tears. Isaac has an autoimmune illness contracted from a bad reaction to medication he received at 2 months old. He also has chronic Lyme disease, likely the result of his poorly functioning immune system.

On the other side of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, Juan Vitali stood, head bowed, as two prayer ministers rested their hands on his shoulders and prayed quietly. Vitali has Crohn's disease, an inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract. The parishioner of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria will undergo his 31st surgery next month.

Sarah and Isaac (names have been changed for privacy) and Vitali were among the nearly 150 people - some with physical ailments, others with psychological or spiritual burdens - who attended an Oct. 15 healing service. The evening service marked the 25th anniversary of the Arlington Healing Ministry and included Mass, opportunities to be prayed over and receive the sacrament of reconciliation, and a post-Mass celebratory cake.

"It was a beautiful night of healing, and you could just feel the Holy Spirit," said Catherine Griffin, ministry founder and administrator and a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton.

When Griffin's husband was dying from cancer, there were no local healing services, so she made the trek back and forth to Baltimore for Masses. Just two months after his death in 1990, Griffin began building a healing ministry in her home diocese with the help of Missionhurst Father Arthur Verstraete and Deacons Harold Brodeur and Robert Curtin.

Because Father Verstraete was not in good health, Father Horace ("Tuck") Grinnell, then in his first stint as pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington and now pastor of St. Peter Church in Washington, Va., was asked to take the lead.

"Starting the ministry was my healing," said Griffin. "I never could have gotten through my husband's death without the people I met through the ministry, without the prayer."

"We knew we needed a way to pray for one another besides the sacrament of the sick; we needed to use the gifts that God has given us in the Eucharist and in the sacrament of penance," said Father Grinnell during his homily at the anniversary Mass. Father Grinnell celebrated the Mass with concelebrants Father David L. Martin, pastor of St. Luke Church in McLean, and Father John H. Melmer, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington. Deacon Flynn of the Washington Archdiocese assisted.

All three priests, along with Father Jeb S. Donelan, parochial vicar of St. Anthony, take turns celebrating the monthly Masses at parishes throughout the diocese.

The Oct. 15 service was a chance to "celebrate this milestone, to remember and to renew what God has given us - that is, the power and the desire to pray for one another," said Father Grinnell in the homily.

He emphasized that healing comes not from the person praying over the sick but from God, that God longs to heal us, and that the one assured way to achieve peace is by relinquishing sins through confession.

"When you go home tonight, when you feel that peace beyond understanding, … know that it comes from God in heaven," he said.

Moments of joy and tears took place throughout the church after Mass, as people filed into lines to be prayed over by the priests, deacon and prayer ministers. In the background was the music of the New Spirit Singers, the ministry's choir.

"It was a moving experience," said Vitali after being prayed over. "I felt like the Lord was touching me."

There are about 16 prayer ministers in the ministry, and each goes through a training process.

"Prayer ministers are people who have been very active in the church, people with great faith," said Griffin. New ministers are teamed up with seasoned ones, so they can witness different praying styles. All take their cues from what the sick person asks for and tailor their prayers to that individual.

"The common denominator (for all ministers) is that they are willing, that they believe in prayer, that they are good listeners and that they are open to the Holy Spirit," said Father Grinnell.

He acknowledged some might be wary of a healing ministry, but said the image of someone "slapping you on the forehead and you falling back healed" is inaccurate.

"This is communal prayer over the person, and it is always private and confidential," he said.

At the end of their prayers, ministers anoint the sick person, or the ill person's proxy, with blessed olive oil (not the oil of the infirm, which is blessed by the bishop and used sacramentally).

Although not publicized, many healings have been attributed to the ministry. Two individuals said it helped cure their cancer.

The cures people seek don't always happen, but sometimes individuals are healed of deep wounds they didn't even know they had, said Father Grinnell.

"People tell me, 'I'd always been praying for this, but then I realized I need to be reconciled with someone, that that was the healing I needed.'

"God heals, yes," said Father Grinnell. "But this is about the strength of faith, about openness to God."

For Sarah and her family, having someone pray over Isaac "makes us feel closer to God, and it releases a lot of weight and pressure knowing our son has more angel guides and the ministry praying for him."

Walking up the side aisle of St. Anthony, holding her son's hand, Sarah said she prays that his body can be healed. But no matter what, she said, "I'm grateful for this ministry … and we leave here tonight with peace."

Find out more

The next Arlington Healing Ministry service is Nov. 19 at St. John Neumann Church, 11900 Lawyers Road, Reston, at 7:30 p.m.

For more information on the ministry, go here

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015