"Illness disempowers us not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and socially – but this is where a ‘healing power’ can come out from Christians".
“All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for a power came out from him and healed all of them” (Lk 6.19)
In 1980, Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a burnout nun belonging to the Hospital Sisters of St Francis, asked her superiors for a quieter assignment and was sent to the small city of Belleville in rural Illinois, to fill a home care nursing position. She expected to have to deal with conventional health issues and be spared from the frantic rhythms of hospital work for a while. One day though she received an unusual request: travel a far greater distance than usual, to a home where a young man was dying of a mysterious disease nobody in the Midwest had yet heard of. A highly experienced nurse who knew how to deal with almost any sort of medical condition, Sr Carol suddenly felt powerless not only to provide adequate care for the young man, but also to bring comfort to parents utterly shocked by the discovery that their son had contracted what some had initially labelled “the gay cancer”.
The story of what followed is recounted in a brilliant and intensely moving podcast called “Plague: Untold Stories of AIDS and the Catholic Church” by a dear friend of mine, Mike O’Loughlin, who is the national correspondent of the America Magazine in the US and the author of “Hidden Mercy. AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear” – a book which received a public endorsement from none other than Pope Francis himself a couple of months ago!
Whenever I try to explain to people why, despite my disillusion with many aspects of the teaching and the behaviour of our ecclesiastical institutions, I still firmly believe that the Church is a force for good in the world, one of the first examples that come to my mind is this nun.
Also, more than many books on theology and exegesis, her story helps me to understand one of the most intriguing aspects of Luke’s Gospel, that is the presentation of Jesus as a physician, a healer. A great deal of the narrative of this gospel portrays miracles of healing – included in the page we have just read:
“A great multitude […] had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for a power came out from him and healed all of them”. (Lk 6.19)
What puzzles me in these texts is not just the question of their historical veracity, but at a deeper level what they are supposed to mean for us. Are they simply meant to persuade us the Jesus is God? If this was the case, I would find them irrelevant. I am wary of a faith based on what seems unexplainable or on extraordinary deeds. We do not believe in God because he can potentially fix all our problems.
I rather think that these passages are an invitation to think deeply about what healing really is – and which kind of power can bring it about.
And here I want to return to dear Sister Carol.
Her experience in the face of the ‘gay cancer’ was one of powerlessness compounded by the biases and prejudices she had internalized in her unquestioning adhesion to Catholic teaching. Then, as now, the Catholic Church together with most evangelicals in the US campaigned forcefully for discrimination against gay people in the workplace, casually referred to them as “sinners”, supported infamous conversion therapies, considered even civil partnership a threat to the family. At that stage, AIDS was believed to affect only gay people, its causes and modality of transmission were still largely unknown, and whether explicitly or not, the equation between moral depravation and illness was tempting for many – and it was not uncommon to hear that gay people had brought this on themselves by their sinful and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
Sr Carol’s powerlessness then was not just medical. Her religious upbringing left her with no way of figuring out how whatever the Gospel means by the ‘healing power’ coming from Jesus could be deployed in this situation.
Here I find a deeper meaning to the passage from Luke we have read in the Gospel today. Luke implies that this “healing power” that came out from Jesus is a consequence of the fact that he let himself to be touched by those in need. And indeed, letting herself to be touched by the young man’s illness is what Sr Carol did, and, as she gradually discovered, this was the only way to overcome her powerlessness.
1. Initially, the thing she immediately knew was required of her was quite simply just not to walk away. It might seem very little, but there is healing power is just remaining there, in being present. And so she did, and in this way very quickly she figured out that she could at least help the family of the young man to navigate the health care system, fight the insurance companies, and force doctors to come and see the patient (many doctors, as we know, refused to treat patients with AIDS at the time).
2. She then discovered that there is healing power in genuine eagerness to listen and try to understand – and in this she went to an extraordinary length. She called another nun of her order who was working at St Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich village, in NYC, which was overflowing with patients dying of AIDS. Incidentally, this is one of the most remarkable findings of my friend’s book: while many refused to treat patients with AIDS, Catholic hospitals in NYC almost went bankrupt because of their decision to take all the patients who came to them. Sr Carol, who had never been in NYC in her life, moved to the convent of her order located in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood which in the 80s was ridden with crime, poverty, addiction and extremely unsafe. There not only she started to care for patients, but also worked at a hotline for those with questions about HIV, befriended gay activists, and even visited gay bars. In her interview for the podcast she recounts how she felt she needed more than medical training – she wanted to understand. She met people who were afraid and had nobody to talk to, listened to calls in which people screamed their fear and anger, talked with the mothers or grand-mothers of those who were dying.
3. Then, she understood in a new way that the greatest form of evangelical healing power is compassionate care and the greatest lesson she learnt during her time in NYC was that this required her to face her fears. In one of the most poignant sentences of her interview she declared: “You can’t even start caring for people with AIDS until you have first faced your biases and prejudices”. Only then she started to impact the lives of those she ministered to in a different way. Some of the gay activists she befriended recount how, considering the homophobic stance of Christianity, initially they had been tempted to dismiss her. But then they saw her being transformed by the experience and genuinely interested in what was happening in the gay community, and they found her naïveté refreshing.
This is when, like Jesus, Sr Carol saw that a healing power was coming out from her too: after the six months in NYC, she was ready to go back to Belleville where she set up a helpline to answer questions about HIV and AIDS, and founded an AIDS service organisation which became known as "Bethany Place" and is highly respected to this day.
What this story tells us is that if medical care must be left to professional physicians, we all have a role to play in the healing process and will be able to act only to the extent that we let ourselves to be touched by the experience of other people’s illnesses.
AIDS, especially in its initial phase, might seem an extreme example of illness, but it helps us to understand that beyond the purely medical side, there are many other aspects to our physical or psychological infirmities: when we are ill most aspects of daily life we take for granted are taken away from us, we are separated, isolated, unable to explain our pain, we feel guilty or embarrassed for being a burden to others. In a word, illness disempowers us not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and socially – and this is where we all have a role to play in bringing healing to others, this is where a ‘healing power’ can come out from us too.
The gospels’ healing narrative does not require that we should bring about miraculous medical or physical restoration, but teaches us how, as followers of Jesus, we all have a mission to work actively for the mental, emotional and social dimensions of healing.
The secret for seeing a “healing power” come out from us resides in letting ourselves to be touched just as Jesus did, as Sr Carol did, that is by not walking away, by being present, by genuine eagerness to listen and understand, by facing our fears, biases and prejudices. In this way we undergo the transformation experienced by Jesus and Sr Carol, and we too might see a new kind of compassion, of empathy come out from us which indeed will contribute to the healing of those in need.