Healing Line

Healing Line

How I Changed My Ecumenical Approach

by Francis MacNutt
Mar/Apr 2007

I will share this very embarrassing story of my approach to Christians of other denominations only because I suspect that some of you have gone through this same transformation. It’s hard to admit how wrong I was and, all the while, thinking I was so right.

I grew up in the Catholic Church years ago — long before the Second Vatican Council (I’m now 81 years old). Even though I never attended a Roman Catholic grade school or high school, I had learned that the Catholic Church was the one true church and every essential Christian truth was already there. Protestants were to be loved as individuals, but their churches were only founded because of their attachment to some error or due to a spirit of revolt. It was wise to stay away from Protestants, because, unless you knew more theology than most of us did, you could be led astray.

Much emotion was injected into the issue of separation because of our ethnic history. Those of us with Irish blood in our veins knew something about the history of English soldiers (Cromwell) killing and massacring Catholics in Ireland and of priests being hanged, drawn, and quartered during Elizabethan times, just for the simple reason that they were priests. We thought that the reason Thomas More, the High Chancellor of England, had his head chopped off was because he would not say “yes” to Henry VIII founding a new church so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Standing up for your church was not only a question of truth but it meant being loyal to your ancestors and to your family. To deny your faith was like being a traitor.

Another area of division was the working of healing miracles, which was meant to attest to the truth of Christianity as taught by the Church. Even now I remember reading in the seminary in our text on ecclesiology (De Ecclesia by Paris) that Protestants could not work miracles of healing, because miracles are meant only to attest to truth, and they could not give witness to the error that was to be found in Protestant churches. (This teaching about miracles was only printed in a footnote and not in the main text, because teaching about healing was not a major topic in a text on the Church.)

After my ordination, when I was teaching homiletics (preaching) in our seminary in Dubuque, IA, I took to visiting the Presbyterian Seminary in Dubuque (c.1960), because I realized that Protestants spent more time on their sermons and had much to teach us. Such fraternization with Protestants was seen by some of the older men on our faculty, who were from Boston, as distinctly dangerous and I was viewed by some with suspicion because I had grown up in a non–Catholic environment.

Then came the baptism in the Spirit in 1967. I had met several Protestants through my preaching contacts and they told me about what had happened when they were baptized in the Spirit. They told me some amazing personal stories about healings they had seen. I recognized that their teachings and experiences corresponded to what I had read about in the lives of the saints in the early centuries of Catholic history and I was fascinated. When I was offered a scholarship to a Protestant camp in Tennessee, I decided that I needed to go and see for myself what they were talking about.

There were 700 people at that camp and I immediately realized that this group were truly dedicated Christians who knew Jesus and loved him — perhaps more than I did. I was amazed to see that this large group of people were living up to what we Catholics believed to be an ideal. I was a priest in the Dominican Order and St. Dominic, our ideal model, was said to spend his time either “talking to God or talking about God.” Here was a group of 700 who were doing just that. It was coming right out of their hearts.

These people who prayed for the sick and saw them healed and who spoke so naturally about God ascribed all of this to their baptism in the Spirit. Of course, in the Catholic Church, we believed in the Spirit and even had a feast of Pentecost to celebrate when the Spirit descended upon Peter and the first 3000 Christians to be empowered by the Spirit. We believed in all those things. We believed in healing and we believed in Pentecost, but we had narrowed it down, so that only occasionally would someone be healed. I certainly did not expect healing through my prayers. We certainly believed in Pentecost, but we didn’t think that the manifestations that happened to Peter and the other apostles on that first Pentecost would ever happen to us personally. It was enough to believe in it and we felt like true believers in comparison to those Protestants who followed Bultmann in “demythologizing” the Gospels.

To meet Protestants who were actually experiencing the supernatural gifts that I believed in was a mighty experience. It radically shifted my attitude towards Protestants. I found that, instead of expecting error and criticizing it when I met Protestants, I might instead expect to find some truth (which had perhaps led them to separate from their various churches). Instead of error, I should look for truth and then bring it back to my church — and these weren’t small truths. I wasn’t fellowshipping with Protestants simply because they sang better than most Catholics, nor just because the sermon was more central to their worship and I could learn a lot about preaching from them.

What I could learn was at the very heart of the Christian faith. I needed to humble myself and change things around so that I wasn’t simply defending and praising the Catholic Church. I had to take the risk of bringing out what was missing in my own church. If enough of us discovered these truths and shared them, perhaps the Catholic Church might change and, eventually, we would all believe the same things

♦ and there would no longer be a reason for separation!

And that’s the way it has been. I believe that Protestants can find valuable truths in the Catholic tradition, but I also openly celebrate that I discovered great and essential truths from my Protestant brothers and sisters:

♦ I discovered about the reality of healing from a member of the Church of the Brethren — and her rediscovery could be traced back to Azusa Street and the Pentecostal churches.

♦ I discovered the great need for the baptism in the Holy Spirit from Agnes Sanford (an Episcopalian), from Tommy Tyson (a Methodist evangelist) and from David Wilkerson’s books (Assemblies of God).

♦ Then I found out soon afterwards about deliverance from evil spirits from Don Basham and Derek Prince (non–denominational Pentecostals).

So it went: I learned so much from all kinds of Protestant friends. Happily, I was also able to find all these elements of Pentecostal truth in the history of my own tradition and so be able to point out to critics that I was not a rebel, but was really a traditionalist who was going back to our common beginning.

"I was a secret conservative who was a tongues–speaking faith–healer who believed in the Gospel!"
(from a talk given at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.)

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Mar/Apr 2007 Issue