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Power of Prayer? 'Miracle' Priest Rises from Wheelchair and Walks

Does the Power of Prayer Have a Place in Medicine? 2:36

A Catholic priest who was paralyzed from the chest down in a fall four years ago says he has proof that prayer can heal.

Doctors had told Father John Murray of Brooklyn, New York that he would never walk again after bone chips from his neck sliced into his spinal cord.

"'You should expect no voluntary movement,'" said Murray. "That's a quote. 'No voluntary movement for the rest of your life.'"

Watch Part Two of Cynthia McFadden's Two-Part Report on the Power of Prayer Tuesday on "Nightly News"

But within a year and a half after he tripped on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, the priest was able to rise from his wheelchair and walk.

"I think it's a result of prayer," said Murray. "Other people's prayers and my prayers, without a doubt."

Father Murray has a lot of company. Half of all Americans believe that prayer can heal. But medical studies increasingly show the same thing, says the medical professor who runs Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.

"People who are more religious just live longer; that's kind of the bottom line," said Dr. Harold Koenig.

Koenig said more than 4,000 studies have examined the connection between spirituality and health, with the number of studies tripling, by his estimate, in the past decade.

According to Koenig, most studies show religious people have better mental health, are less likely to experience depression, and cope better when they do. His own research shows that people who pray daily are 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure.

"They have greater well-being, in general," he said. "Religious people who are part of a faith community and have a relationship with God, so to speak, just have higher levels of well-being. They're happier. And that's been shown -- hundreds of studies have now shown that."

Said Koenig, "We think that the research shows and will show that people whose faith is supported by their medical team, they're just going to do better."

Father John Murray, a Catholic priest, credits prayer for his ability to walk again after doctors told him his spinal injury would leave him paralyzed from the chest down. NBC News

But, as Koenig notes, religious people also drink and smoke less and are more likely to exercise. Other doctors call stories about the power of prayer anecdotal.

"You can find anecdotes about healing in any area," said Dr. Richard Sloan, author of "Blind Faith," who believes attempts to link faith and health can be misleading. "And some people will report that they get better. But you don't hear the stories about people who prayed for healing and don't get better. You only hear the stories about those who do get better."

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Sloan thinks that doctors should let patients practice religion as they see fit, but shouldn't cross a line. "They shouldn't engage in religious practices with them," he said.

Koenig says that such skepticism is part of medical training. But he believes that separating spirituality and medicine is a mistake.

"They go together," he said. "But they have to go together sensibly. And the patient has to be in control. That's the key."

Father Murray still suffers from pain and uses a walker, but he believes his recovery is a miracle, and says his faith has only been strengthened.

"I'm certainly better off than most paraplegics," he said.