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In the Shadow of the Vatican, An African Archbishop Carries on His Faith-Healing Ministry

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I traveled all over Italy speaking to the best doctors. They said I had some sort of growth on my brain that was inoperable. No one could do anything for me. Then I met Archbishop Milingo. He prayed over me in English, Italian and an African dialect. Today doctors can find nothing wrong with me.

Testimonials such as this from a 60-year-old Rome woman to the faith-healing powers of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo are plentiful. His believers gather by the hundreds several mornings each week to attend his prayer services, and by the thousands for his monthly healing masses. They queue outside his Vatican office or wait in the hallway of his apartment building in hope of a blessing from the slight (5’4″), gentle-voiced, 55-year-old African churchman, who claims to have cured people of everything from boils to terminal cancer.

Many of Milingo’s Vatican superiors, however, are more than a little skeptical, even embarrassed. Words such as voodoo and witchcraft have been whispered about him; some have speculated on his mental health. Three years ago he was abruptly summoned to Rome from his diocese in Lusaka, Zambia and then asked to resign as head of the Catholic Church there. Today he is special delegate to the Pontifical Commission for Pastoral Care for Migrants and Tourism, which, as one Vatican bureaucrat admits, amounts to a “nonjob.” Yet he stubbornly continues his special ministry, often from his sparse apartment across the street from the papal residence in St. Peter’s Square. “There is no doubt,” he maintains, “that the Lord sends people to me to be healed.”

Emmanuel Milingo once was among the bright rising stars of the African church. The middle of nine children in a farm laborer’s family, he began his religious studies with the White Fathers missionary order at 12. Later he earned a university degree in education in Ireland and studied at Rome’s International School of Developing Nations. Ordained at 28, he was an unusually able and energetic priest who, in addition to his pastoral duties, operated a mobile hospital unit and directed an educational series on radio. At 39, he was named archbishop of Lusaka, the first black to fill the position.

His involvement with faith healing began four years later. He remembers the exact date: April 13, 1973. “A woman came to me saying she was controlled by voices that frightened her,” he says. “She also had a child who, she claimed, would turn into a hideous animal every time she looked at it. The woman was obviously possessed by a very powerful demon. After trying all traditional methods—masses, exorcisms—I just began praying over her. I prayed and prayed for two weeks, asking for God to destroy the evil spirits. Finally on April 13 I began to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the woman was cured.”

Convinced that he had been given the gift of healing by God, the archbishop began a personal crusade on a grand scale. The sick and the lame from all across Africa, and some from overseas, flocked to his twice-weekly blessings, and many walked away claiming cures. Such dramatic results were bound to be noticed by the church hierarchy, and the first to complain were Zambia’s white Catholic missionaries. Milingo never used amulets or mumbo jumbo in his services. Nonetheless he was accused of fostering faith in tribal magic and witchcraft. In 1977 the Vatican warned the archbishop to cut back on his healing activities, a curtailment that was extended to a total ban by order of the African Bishops Conference the next year. Milingo agreed in principle to a halt but then could not comply. “People continued to come to me for healing even if I frequently changed my residence,” he says. “I did not feel I could send them away.”

In 1982 pontifical orders recalled Milingo to Rome on just two days’ notice. A priest who was then in Lusaka recalls that a major criticism lodged against the archbishop was “that he did nothing else but practice faith healing and, as a result, the finances and administration of the diocese were totally neglected.” Moreover, despite the church’s policy of adapting Christianity to local conditions, many of Milingo’s fellow bishops felt he went too far. “Milingo’s way of conducting his faith healing, especially the casting out of evil spirits, was too representative of native African medicine,” says a Vatican official. “The other bishops didn’t need to be reminded of a tradition they were trying to escape.”

Church leaders sought to solve the Milingo question by installing him in his nominal Vatican job, but today he is attracting fervent throngs in Rome. “People thought this was some kind of witchcraft,” says a fellow churchman. “But those who see him no longer arrive in tribal dress. They come in fur coats and three-piece suits.”

For the moment the Vatican appears to take a tolerant attitude toward Milingo’s continued faith healing. “The church doesn’t absolutely frown on the idea,” a Vatican official adds. “In the West we may have professionalized health services so much that the desire for someone who will actually take the time to pray individually over a person might be very much in demand. I don’t know how else you could explain his popularity.”

The archbishop has trouble explaining it himself. “I am not a remarkable man,” he says. “I honestly don’t know why God chose me.” He plainly intends to carry on with his ministry wherever he is, but he chafes at his exile, however benign it may seem. “It was very painful for me to leave Africa,” Milingo says. “I was not made for Europe. I am too African.”