San Antonio Express-News, Feb. 8, 2003
By J. Michael Parker, Express-News Religion Writer
Seeing is believing, and some San Antonians say that is why they return to a Southeast Side Catholic church where they say a retired car salesman and lay parishioner brings healing with his prayers.
Women who had aggressive cancer, breast lumps or pain so great that they needed a wheelchair to get around say they have been healed thanks in part to the work of Domingo Setien, and attendance at his St. Margaret Mary Church service is up to 1,800 people a week.
What’s more, Setien has the support of San Antonio’s archbishop and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center. But that hasn’t won over some skeptics because dramatic healings through prayer are difficult to verify.
Setien says that’s OK, skepticism doesn’t bother him.
“I don’t blame them at all. Many people abuse spiritual gifts like healing, claiming they have them when they don’t.”
A mother-daughter story
Della Tarin and her daughter, Elvia Maxwell, said they were skeptical until they were healed after Setien prayed over them in 1985.
Maxwell said she had constant pain for two years and could not walk normally after her uterus was scarred during the removal of a contraceptive.
She said that despite medication, the intense pain in her pelvis was “like being in labor constantly — unbearable.” To move the few feet from her bed to the bathroom, she had to inch forward, holding onto furniture.
“I was a week away from having a hysterectomy,” she said.
She and her mother went to Setien’s service at the urging of friends.
When Setien prayed over her, she said she felt a strange, warm sensation in the affected part of her body and the pain was gone. Maxwell rose from her wheelchair, walked about seven steps without help, then walked back.
Soon after her daughter’s healing, Tarin attended Setien’s prayer meeting after learning from a doctor that she had a small tumor on her left breast, she said.
“Mr. Setien said, ‘There’s a lady who’s just learned she has a tumor on her breast. Raise your hand.’”
Setien said he told her, “You don’t have it anymore. Don’t worry about it.”
When she returned to the doctor, she said, the lump was gone.
The ministry and the man
Setien, 73, has conducted his prayer meetings since 1973. He’s never sought publicity, but TV coverage of his ministry in December swelled the weekly attendance from about 50 to as many as 1,800, often filling the church sanctuary twice in one evening.
Archbishop Patrick Flores said he has referred people to Setien for nearly 30 years.
“Many people tell me they’ve been healed after Setien prayed over them,” Flores said. “He rightly says it’s not him doing the healing, but God healing through him.”
To maintain order, Joyce Swan, Setien’s assistant, instructs the audience to remain seated and wait for Setien to come to them. No one will be left out, she says.
She admonishes them to follow doctors’ advice and maintain a positive attitude toward medical treatment — but not to let their illness dominate them.
“Our message is that there’s always hope; it’s not to give up hope in medicine,” Swan said.
The informally dressed Setien says someone in the audience has a specific kind of illness or disease, then says, “Don’t worry about it; it’s gone,” or “Your life is going to change.”
He estimates that a majority of the people he prays over are healed, but says it’s impossible to say how many.
The quiet, easy-going Setien lives in a modest South Side home. He doesn’t ask for money during the service, but that doesn’t quiet the skeptics.
An oncologist who treated Swan said that although Swan had aggressive breast cancer, she did well with treatment — a fact Swan admits.
“That’s what we hope for,” said Dr. Helen Goldberg. “Her spiritual strength has helped her, but she got very good medical treatment and responded well with the treatment. It’s not a miracle.”
She’s not alone in saying she is skeptical about miracles at St. Margaret Mary. Praying is one thing, but questionable tactics of faith-healers like Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn and Kathrynn Kuhlmann have made skeptics of Catholics and Protestants alike when it comes to healing. Some believe that spiritual healing ended with the era of Jesus’ apostles.
“I believe God can heal people, but I believe he does it himself,” said Northside Church of Christ minister David Allen. “I’m skeptical that God has gifted certain (modern) individuals to be channels for his power.”
He cited a passage in Acts 8 in which Philip could work miracles only through power given him directly by the apostles.
The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that, said Father George Montague, a St. Mary’s University theology professor who offers healing Masses. But many Catholics either doubt spiritual healing is something to be sought or think the gift is given only to a few holy people.
God doesn’t heal everyone, he said. God rebuffed the apostle Paul’s prayer to remove a thorn from his flesh. But Montague said healing is sometimes given to encourage belief in the power and possibility of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Theology aside, Setien says he understands Goldberg’s skepticism.
“If someone had an incurable disease and then suddenly doesn’t have it anymore, a doctor may not have an explanation, but he’s not going to say it’s a miracle. He’d look ridiculous,” he said.
“The important thing is, (Swan has) been healed.”
Sense of hope
Neither Tarin nor Maxwell could find a doctor to verify that they had a medically unexplainable healing, but that’s not the point for them or other attendees. They believe their prayers have been answered, and they feel more at peace and closer to God.
Their attitude is very common, said Meredith McGuire, professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University. She said many people seek a wide range of healing sources simultaneously — including traditional medicine, prayer, psychics and curanderos (healers).
“If a patient gets a new sense of hope, that could have a physical effect,” she said.
Dr. Donald Dudley, professor of obstetrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said that in 20 years of obstetrical practice he has seen many dramatic recoveries that had no apparent medical explanation.
“I’m often struck by the incredible healing power of the human body,” he said.
Emotional outlook can directly affect overall health, he said.
“If someone like (Setien) can help patients believe in themselves and give them confidence in their overall health, a reasonable number of people are going to benefit,” he said.
Paul Parks, director of the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health, said that for a long time, physicians speaking of healing in the context of faith often were considered scientifically suspect.
“But now, well-respected physicians are looking at data that point to the positive role of faith in the healing process. They know faith is beneficial, and now they’re trying to understand how,” he said.
Tarin said she still attends Setien’s services because she knows how faith is beneficial.
“I’m grateful to God for my whole life,” she said. “He gave me more than I deserve.”