Jake Finkbonner, 12, and his parents Don and Elsa Finkbonner of Sandy Point, Wash., are pictured during an interview in Rome in 2012. Jake's healing from a rare and potentially fatal flesh-eating bacteria was the miracle accepted for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. (CNS)

Jake Finkbonner, 12, and his parents Don and Elsa Finkbonner of Sandy Point, Wash., are pictured during an interview in Rome in 2012. Jake's healing from a rare and potentially fatal flesh-eating bacteria was the miracle accepted for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. (CNS)

As a boy in Vermont in the 1920s, Carl Peters lost the ability to speak. His foster parents took him north to see the future saint, Brother André Bessette, who gave the couple a vial of blessed oil to smear on the lad. His speech soon returned.

Peters, now in his 90s, lives in Manzanita. “I could not talk and then suddenly I could,” he says.

Though many Catholics don’t know it, their tradition recognizes the relationship between faith and healing. It’s not just the stuff of Pentecostal tent revivals.

But 2,000 years of experience and openness to science has allowed the Catholic Church to take a mature approach.   

“Healing is very much a part of our Catholic tradition and understanding,” says Portland Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith, who has had a long relationship with charismatic Catholics. He’s seen healings firsthand.

“It goes back to the New Testament,” the bishop says. “Jesus and the apostles healed people. As medical science has developed — and psychiatry as well — we see that as how God heals, too.”

Catholic teaching doesn’t discourage seeking medical care.

Sometimes, Bishop Smith explains, a faithful patient doesn’t make it. Or a person without faith experiences miraculous recovery.   

“There is no set formula on how this all works,” he says. “All we can do is bring faith to this. We say ‘God’s will be done.’ We just express that we want our brother or sister brought back to us in health. We also know we don’t know everything.”

‘Open to receive and give’

There is a peril when it comes to faith and healing. Some groups will tell patients that if they only have enough belief, they will get better. That’s what happened to Holy Cross Father Richard Berg’s sister, and it crushed her faith for a time.

“Healing is not something we can force. We just have to be open to letting it happen,” says Father Berg, a former University of Portland dean and pastor who has for decades anointed people and witnessed healings. He recalls a college student who suffered life-threatening burns on much of his body when his marijuana joint ignited a camping stove. After a period of prayer with Father Berg and medical treatment, the young man sped from near death to recovery, with only a minor scar on his wrist. Doctors were flummoxed.  

The priest explains the relationship of faith and healing as confidence to use and receive our gifts. 

“It’s an openness to receive and give, realizing that there is more to this than me, myself and I,” Father Berg says.

Heal the whole person

Father Bruce Cwiekowski, head chaplain at Portland Providence Medical Center, cautions that western medicine has a tendency be so intent on science that it forgets the whole person needs to be healed. Providence, Father Cwiekowski says, tries to overcome that by keeping up a vibrant pastoral care presence. 

“We help people get in touch with angers, jealousies, betrayals — whatever emotional stuff is getting in the way of healing,” he explains. “Suppressed emotions become manifest in physical illnesses.”

Faith and physical life are so intimately involved, Father Cwiekowski says, that if we neglect the one, we have problems with the other.

Studies show benefits

Prayer and healing have been the subject of dozens of scientific studies. Results are mixed, but favor a link between faith and healing. 

A 2001 Mayo Clinic survey of 799 discharged coronary surgery patients showed no effect from intercessory prayer. A Harvard study showed worse outcomes for those who were prayed for, perhaps because patients understood prayer as a signal that they were hopeless cases.

But plenty of medical research shows that one of the outcomes of personal faith is better mental and physical health.

A 2012 Duke University mega-study showed that prayer helps prevent people from getting ill and when they do get ill, they recover faster. Dr. Harold Koenig analyzed more than 1,500 reputable medical studies. Out of 125 studies that looked at the link between health and regular worship, 85 showed regular churchgoers live longer.

The Southern Medical Journal featured a study from Andrew Weaver and Kevin Flannerly describing how the spirituality of cancer patients determined quality of life during care. Those with faith had a better quality of life than those with out it.

Rush University Medical Center published a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology looking at how faith can protect patients against the symptoms of depression.

Better coping

How do prayer and faith make this all happen?      

In general, those who practice religion regularly can cope with stress better and have strong community support, two things that translate into lower blood pressure and a drop in diabetes, among other chronic ills.

Lorretta Krautscheid, an assistant professor in the University of Portland School of Nursing, says stress causes release of the hormone cortisol. The hormone has its uses, but if the release is constant, all kinds of problems ensue — diabetes, heart disease, hypertension. Cortisol can impair the work of immune cells, meaning the chronically-stressed person is more subject to infections. The hormone leads to excess inflammation, which doctors know can lead to cancer. 

Krautscheid says chronic worry and stress can cause a clumping of proteins in the body that contribute to Alzheimer’s.

Other studies show that people of faith are less apt to suffer depression, feel anxiety or commit suicide. Believers also stay married longer, which also correlates to a longer lifespan.

Many studies show that people who pray or meditate can cope with physical pain better than those who don’t. Krautscheid saw this in action as a labor and delivery nurse.  

In short, she explains, coping with stress is a major path to better health and faith turns out to be among the best ways to cope.

For Krautscheid, a devout member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton, faith is not just a form of therapy. But there is no doubting that believers have a physiological advantage. 

The link has been recognized for a long time. St. Hildegard of Bingen — a physician among other things — wrote in the 12th century that discord of the spirit causes ill health.

Healing power of compassion

Theresa Edmonson, a chaplain for PeaceHealth, says the Catholic tradition thinks of healing in a holistic way. Healing may mean the disappearance of disease, but may also mean a revived relationship with a loved one, or with God.

Compassion from caregivers can prompt these different kinds of healings, says Edmonson, a member of Holy Trinity in Beaverton. 

“When patients come with a need, we need to be attentive to that need,” Edmonson says. “Just listening to the story can give them hope.”

She recalls one knee surgery patient who was helped when the physical therapist said, “After your treatment you will be stronger.” “The therapist was not was not just talking about physical strength,” Edmonson says. “When mind and body can relax because they trust the environment, healing happens. It’s about people finding meaning in the midst of chaos."