Look at his hands and they are nothing special--long, lean fingers that taper gently from supple knuckles to manicured nails. His hands bear no remarkable scars, no memorable lines, no distinguishing marks at all that would seal them in anyone's memory for very long. They are graceful hands for a man, and he moves them in delicate arcs when he gestures, as he often does when he speaks.
But thousands of people testify that there is, in fact, something very special about the pale hands of Father Richard Bain, a 58-year-old Roman Catholic priest at Sacred Heart Church in the tiny town of Olema, Calif. Tens of thousands of people seek him out each year to receive a touch from those hands, which they believe bestow God's healing upon them.
For 15 years, Father Bain has traveled the country holding healing Masses and three-day parish missions. From his base in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, he has traveled from Vermont to Hawaii, Texas to Ohio. At his larger missions, a thousand people may show up, most of them in the hope that he can heal them or their loved ones of illness and disease.
Over the years, Father Bain has collected dozens of letters from people who believe he has helped cure them of everything from acne to cancer. A woman from Las Vegas writes that Father Bain took away pain she had after surgery. Another woman from San Bruno, Calif., said her husband was healed of an arthritic knee. A nun in San Francisco describes how, after a blessing from Father Bain, a 70 percent blockage in her cardiac artery disappeared. And Joe Illuzzi of West Hempstead, New York, writes that he and his wife, who were planning to resort to in vitro fertilization, conceived a child the usual way after Father Bain laid his hands on Mr. Illuzzi.
When asked about his gift of healing, he explains it away. "I don't think it is anything special," he says. "I think we all have this power. I prayed for these people the way I was taught to, and I really believe if anybody else did it, the same thing would happen."
After school, he started a career in business, working for a San Francisco public utility. It was the early 1970s and the sexual revolution was in high swing. The 20-something Richard Bain swung right along with it. Somewhere between the singles bars and the discos, he let go of God. "That lifestyle is completely contrary to the gospel," he says. "You can only live that lifestyle for so long before you lose your faith, and that is what happened to me." He went so far as to declare himself an atheist. "In my own mind, I couldn't conceive of God. If I could conceive of a God, he was very far away from me and didn't care about me."
So he threw himself into his work, rising very quickly to become the youngest corporate officer at his public utility. Then one day, a female coworker invited him to come with her to a Bible study. A Catholic, she knew he had strayed from his faith and hoped to get him to return. And, hey, he admits, she was cute. "The reason I went was I was lonely," he says. "I didn't want to study the Bible. I just didn't have anything else to do that night."
Nothing monumental happened that night, but something took hold inside him. He remembers listening to the discussion and really enjoying it, and being surprised that he was enjoying it. After the meeting, he began thinking about God again. A couple of weeks later, while driving to Lake Tahoe "with a couple of girls," Richard Bain felt a very strong desire to go to confession. He and his friends stopped in Reno, and while they went to the casinos, he went to church.
But back in San Francisco, "I went back to my old ways," he says, going to bars, going home with women. Still, he continued attending the Bible study, and accompanied the group the night they decided to drop in on a gathering of charismatic Catholics at the old St. Ignatius High School, Bain's alma mater.
It was a revelation. Here were Catholic men and women--young, like himself--singing and dancing, swept up in the spirit of worship. There were guitars and tambourines, people raising their palms to God as they sang and prayed. And quite a few people spoke in tongues. There was an ecstasy in the worship that Bain had never experienced before. "There was just so much love," he says. "I felt something I had never felt before-the feeling of love, love of the Holy Spirit, and of God's presence."
Bain threw himself into the Catholic charismatic movement, attending its meetings every Saturday night. He signed up for an eight-week course on baptism in the Holy Spirit, an experience charismatics consider a necessary foundation for a close relationship with God.
In the first class, on a Saturday night, the instructor told everyone their lives were about to change. It was something Bain took very seriously. It was what he had come there seeking. Two days later, he got a call from a friend in Hawaii, offering him a high-paying job as an executive with a construction company. Remembering the words of the teacher on Saturday night, he took the job on the spot.
Before he left for Hawaii, Bain wanted to complete the eight-week course. He was afraid if he left without completing it, the new-found fervor of his faith would disappear. So a woman from the class came to his apartment to guide him through the final steps.
The two stood in Bain's living room, his bay windows offering a view of San Francisco at night. She began to pray for him, asking God to grant him the spiritual gifts that come with baptism in the Holy Spirit--the gift of healing, among them. They prayed for a while, Bain remembers, but he felt nothing special. Then she began to speak in tongues and asked him to mimic her. He did, still feeling nothing. She then began to sing in tongues and he sang along with her. Still, he felt just as he had before. Finally, she said to him, "Richard, you have received the Holy Spirit."
"I asked her why she thought so because I didn't feel anything," he says.
"And she said, 'Because you are singing in tongues.' And I said, no, I am not, I am just mimicking you. But something did happen because I was very peaceful about not feeling anything, and the old me would have been very disappointed. Then I said, 'Maggie, it is okay. I will receive the Holy Spirit when God wants me to.'"
With the rush of wind came a huge rush of faith. "After that, the sacraments came alive," he says. "The Bible became alive. I could sit and read the Bible for hours at a time. I found prayer very easy, too." Once he got to Hawaii, settling in Honolulu, Bain found another charismatic group and dove in. They met every Friday night. And every morning at six a.m., he went to Mass. One morning, just after receiving Holy Communion and taking its wafer on his tongue, he had a thought: "I can become a priest."
"I tried to put the thought out of my mind because I did not want to be a priest," he says. "I wanted some day to get married and have a family. Try as I might, I could not get it out of my mind. It just kept coming back."
It persisted long enough and strong enough that he applied to St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, California. Even there, though, he wasn't sure. "My first year in the seminary I remember walking alone on the grounds after dinner and thinking to myself, it's okay, I will quit at the end of the year," he says. "It was not until December of my second year that I finally got in touch with the call, and after that I really wanted to become a priest."
In 1977, in the middle of his second year at seminary, Father Bain attended a healing service held by the Rev. Francis MacNutt, a Catholic priest with a healing ministry of his own. At the service, Father MacNutt taught how to pray for the healing of the sick. The key, MacNutt taught, is for the healer to pray that his hands become the hands of Jesus.
I visited Father Bain in his study, where an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary rests next to his computer. I wanted to ask him about the burden and responsibilities of being a healer. Why does he think God chose him for this work? How does he feel when someone he prays for does not improve, but perhaps dies? The questions seemed to perplex him.
"My responsibilities of being a healer," he says, "are all subject to my responsibilities as a priest, which include living a life that reflects God's love and God's goodness." Is that hard? "Not if you pray," he says. "If you have a deep, daily prayer life in which you are touched by the Spirit and you are being fed by that, it is very easy to live that life because you want to. That's not saying there aren't temptations. Padre Pio said there will always be temptations because God loves us. But if you have that deep prayer life, even with temptations, you will be at peace. You will be happy. It is only when your inner being isn't being fed by God that life becomes a struggle."
He never feels remorse when someone he prays for dies, because he knows that the healing comes from God, not from him. "All I can do is lay my hands on them," he says. "That is all I can do."
How does he answer, for himself and for the people he serves, why God heals some and not others? Why does God let bad things happen to people he supposedly loves?
"I really trust God," he says after a pause. "In all those hours of prayer, I have found that God is love. It is unbelievable how much he loves us."
As for his gift being a burden, he replies, "No more than it is a burden to have children you love, and I love it. I have come to see that this is what God wants me to do, and when God gives you a burden, it is light."
If Father Bain has a gift for healing other people, he does not have that same gift when it comes to himself. About ten years ago, he developed tinnitus, a chronic condition that produces a loud ringing in the ears. It is triggered by exposure to loud noises and only abates with quiet. Now, he must avoid large gatherings of people, can no longer attend or conduct weddings or funerals, go to the movies, parties, restaurants, or travel widely. It also keeps him from preaching the way he would like to. He can't raise his voice above the level of conversation, but must use a microphone. He can't have organ music at his services, only the soft singing of five or six unaccompanied voices. He must wear earplugs at every service he attends or officiates.
Neither Father Bain nor his doctors can trace the physical cause of his case. One day it was just there. But Father Bain has a theory. "If a healer has an ailment, he is going to be able to better identify with the people who come to be healed," he explains. "It probably also keeps him humble-so he knows he is not God. I look back on the fifteen years of suffering and I thank God for it. It was a real blessing. And I think God will take it away-when I become humble enough."
Humility doesn't seem to be a problem for Father Bain. There is absolutely nothing of the showman about him. He has no hunger for attention. At every Mass he tells people right from the beginning that they are here for God's miracles, not his. On his ministry's website, there is only one small picture of him. "I don't want people to discover Father Bain," he explains. "I want people to discover the church and Jesus and God's love."