The services at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Worcester, Mass. bear little resemblance to the orderly Masses held in most U.S. parishes. Congregants scream and writhe. Some faint and fall into the aisles. There are claims of miracle cures. At the center of these dramatic outbursts is Father Ralph DiOrio, a member of the Catholic Church’s growing—and controversial—charismatic movement.
“There is no secret to it,” the 47-year-old priest explains. “The healing is just the supernatural force of God working through me as a medium. He’s given me the gift and now I’m attempting to live up to it.” Some of the shouting, swooning worshipers at St. John’s are crippled. Others suffer from emphysema or cancer. During the service a few of them rise from their wheelchairs and walk or proclaim that since an earlier visit their tumors have gone into remission.
Growing thousands who seek DiOrio’s help arrive from as far away as Florida and California. Carl deMoon brought his 3-month-old daughter Sarah from Addison, Ill. to see the priest last fall. Sarah was thought to be suffering from Down’s syndrome, or mongolism. Says deMoon today: “I not only think Sarah is cured, I think she’s a genius. She’s doing more than expected of a normal 1-year-old. Science and medicine don’t have all the answers. God still has the last word.”
DiOrio is proud of such “miracles,” but many doctors—while acknowledging the high rate of recovery among his pilgrims—claim the priest is just curing patients whose diseases are psychosomatic. “Studies have shown there is a high correlation between positive patient attitude and successful therapy,” says Richard D’Amico, a Providence physician whose cancer patients have visited DiOrio. “Both drugs and faith are essential if therapy is going to work.”
“Everyone wants to know whether the cures are real,” admits Father George Lange, the archdiocese’s liaison to the charismatic movement in Worcester. “I say they are. Sure, some of the cases are psychosomatic, some hysterical, and some can be explained through natural causes. But I don’t have any problem with that.” Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan notes, “There’s a danger of exaggerating the role of these phenomena. Healing is just part of the charismatic movement.”
“I’ve had the gift all my life,” believes DiOrio, who had one uncle who was a bishop, five who were priests and six aunts who were nuns. A native of Providence, R.I., he was enrolled in Chicago’s Sacred Heart Seminary by the age of 14. “In the first years of my priesthood,” he recalls, “nearly everybody I was giving the sacraments of the sick to was getting better.” After 20 years of parish work from California to Greenwich Village, he joined the charismatic movement in 1976. DiOrio explains that it “was just a matter of realizing that God had decided it was time for me to devote myself fully to this calling.”
In the face of criticism, DiOrio can be both conciliatory and unswerving. “What I do is in no way a replacement for the medical profession,” he concedes. “In fact, I insist that all those who come to see me remain under the care of their physicians. But you’ve got to remember that no doctor is a healer. He makes diagnoses; he performs surgery. The healing belongs to God.” As for doubters, DiOrio bluntly declares, “Whether church officials of any denomination accept us or not, we’re here to stay. That’s God’s plan, not mine.”