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Possession and The Role of Exorcism as Seen Through the Catholic Lens
This article explores how the Catholic Church determines when a diabolical encounter has occurred in an individual's life and how the exorcist may assist those inflicted by the demonic. Let's face it---the Catholic Church has a reputation for knowing how to "deal with the devil." Hence, this article will explore the rite of exorcism as seen through the catholic lens. Let us begin with some definitions:
- Exorcism: “The act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons." The word exorcist, in Hebrew, literally means, "to bind with an oath."
- Demoniacal Possession: Possession is present when the "entity" has taken control of the body and is causing great anguish to the afflicted individual. For example, a possessed person might tell its body to walk in one direction, but the entity which has taken control of the body will walk wherever it chooses despite the will of the person.
- Oppression: An overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by and “oppressed” by evil, though the evil entity remains outside of the body.
- Exorcist: “One who exorcises or professes to exorcise demons; in particular, one ordained by a bishop for this office.” ( A Catholic exorcist is always required to be ordained by a bishop; otherwise, he is not sanctioned by the Church.)
How Does the "Afflicted" Person Feel and What Drives Her to Seek an Exorcist?
The words most commonly used to describe how the afflicted person feels: Agitated, helpless, suicidal, “having experienced hell,” nauseous, feverish, detached from reality, "in a horrible place where there is no hope,” “on fire,” fearful, in chronic pain that causes them to "twist and weep."
Such feelings are also suspiciously similar to those experienced by the mentally ill. Consequently, the Church requires that any person requesting exorcism must first undergo extensive psychiatric testing as well as medical examinations to eliminate any medical causes for the unwanted "disturbance." Only after thorough and multiple testing may the rite of exorcism be considered. If the medical community determines that the anguish associated with the individual is not the cause of a medical or mental illness, the exorcist may then begin to prepare himself for the rite of Exorcism.
One day Father Candido asked a thirteen-year-old girl who was possessed:
"Two enemies, who hated each other all their lives, hated each other to death, and both ended up in hell." "What is the relationship that they will now share since they will be with each other for all eternity?"
And this was the answer:
"How stupid you are? Down there everyone lives folded within himself and torn apart by his regrets. There is no relationship with anyone; everyone finds himself in the most profound solitude and desperately weeps for the evil that he has committed. It is like a cemetery."
Excerpt from "An Exorcist Tells His Story," by Father Gabriele Amorth
How is the Possessed Person Different from the Mentally Ill Person?
Not unlike the mentally ill, the possessed person feels “out of touch with reality." However, they may also experience terrible physical pain. The following is a list of “signs” that enable the exorcist to conclude that possession is present:
- Super-human strength, even in a child, whereby the possessed is able to bend hard metals, or even to quite literally "toss people around."
- Inability to concentrate on one’s studies, even if the oppressed person had formerly been an excellent student.
- An strong aversion to sacred objects.
- The ability to speak in foreign languages of which the patient had no former knowledge.
- Knowledge of embarrassing past events of those present in the room where the exorcism is occurring.
- A (temporarily) contorted face or body. Occasionally, the possessed person's visage will change to become horribly bloated or to weirdly resemble that of a snake.
- A deep, guttural voice coming from the patient.
- A change of temperature in the room where the exorcism is taking place, and/or a foul sulfurous smell.
How Does Exorcism Work?
Exorcism rids the body of evil spirits. Medical doctors cannot address that which is spiritual---only an exorcist can accomplish this. If the exorcism is successful in removing all demons (there are always several demons occupying the possessed person), the penitent has a good chance to live a normal life. Exorcism is the only way to expel the demons as well as the physical ailments the afflicted individual suffers due to possession---the point being that demons do not leave a body of their own accord---they are like unwanted tenants who refuse to go. To be rid of demons, one must seek the help of a higher authority to force the evil spirits out. That higher authority is the exorcist, who is ordained by a bishop. The exorcist, however, receives his power through Jesus Christ. The Catholic exorcist also calls upon Mother Mary, the archangels, and the saints, to guide him and give him strength as the exorcism proceeds.
Who Is Most Vulnerable to Attack by Demons?
Strangely, a high level of piety in a person is not a guarantee against demonic oppression. Both Padre Pio and Mother Theresa experienced attacks by the evil one and both underwent "blessings" to regain their equanimity.
Children are also vulnerable to attack because of their lack of discernment. Evil has no boundaries and it will attack anyone who is an easy target. Children and teenagers are often intrigued by the occult. As such, they may choose to dabble with the Ouija board or séances. However, young people do so at their own risk, blindly, without realizing the dangers contained therein. In other words, when one "plays around" with the occult, one has essentially opened the door to strangers. Those "strangers" are demons and they can create havoc and do great harm.
Many New Agers make themselves vulnerable to evil influence due to their naiveté'. "White Lighters" mistakenly believe they attract messages or messengers who are benevolent and "evolved" because they believe themselves to have a "higher consciousness." They are wrong. The only thing such people have are gullible minds. In all cases, the spirit messenger is anything but evolved. Rather, they are low level spirits who pretend to be anything you want them to be---they do so to gain entrance into your home and your thoughts.
The Danger of Immorality
But make no mistake, any person who is hardened against godliness or that which is good and decent are not doing themselves any favors. When an individual releases her need for morality, she has aligned herself with evil and she will become a puppet of the demonic. According to Father Gabriele Amorth, Hitler and Stalin were two highly immoral men who were most certainly possessed by evil.
Finally, it goes without saying that anyone who makes a pact with the devil and who invites him/it into her life, of her own free will, has made a catastrophic decision. The devil is not benevolent. Eventually, the misinformed person will pay with their lives and will most certainly take down many other innocent lives with them.
Prior To The Exorcism or the "Casting Out"
Before the exorcism begins, the priest must go to confession. He wears a simple tunic and places a purple mantle over his shoulders. The exorcist then begins the ritual. He first blesses the penitent with holy water, then himself and the others' whom he has chosen to attend the exorcism. The priest begins the prayers: The Litany of Saints, the Our Father, and many other lengthy prayers. The process can be quite tedious.
The exorcist is also admonished not to engage in unnecessary conversation with the demons, so as not to be distracted by their cleverness. (This admonition is found in the Ritual Romanum.) However, a highly seasoned priest may, on rare occasion, ask a question or two of the demons if he senses that God is permitting him to do so.
The Rituale Romanum was first published in 1614 under Pope Paul V, and was left untouched until two minor revisions were added in 1952. The Roman Ritual has since been made more "modern" through the addition of the English language. (The passages in the book were formerly written entirely in Latin.) The Rituale Romanum is comprised of various rites, including the rite of exorcism. In its pages, a priest will find rites for baptism, confirmation, marriage, and the last anointing for the dying, among other rituals and sacraments. In the volumes of the book, the priest will find the proper, specific protocol for various liturgical processions and official blessings. The Rituale Romanum is not to be used by the layperson; it was created as a specific tool for ordained priests.
Little Known Facts
- During the exorcism, the penitent sometimes vomits nails, shards of glass, hair, and pieces of bone, among other strange objects. However, the patient is not harmed by aspirating the items. Getting the objects out of the body is a needed and welcome release.
- Some exorcisms must be repeated over months, sometimes years---because the affliction has been "long standing."
- In some cases, as in a curse that was cast many years ago through black magic, the demon cannot be expelled.
- Some experienced Catholic exorcists fully recognize and appreciate the skill of many Protestant exorcists to exorcise demons. Father Amorth has stated: "Protestant literature (regarding the subject of exorcism) contains a wealth of information.”
- Most exorcisms are not "sensational" or violent.
What Happens During an Exorcism?
In an exorcism, the afflicted individual will usually have no knowledge or remembrance of anything that happens during "peak" times of the exorcism. The demons are "running the show," so to speak, and the possessed person knows nothing of what the demon is saying and doing. The demons, in fact, speak through the tormented person, which accounts for the disembodied sound coming from the plagued man or woman. However, it should be noted that the demons actually resist speaking during the rite, and they particularly resist revealing their names. However, the exorcist will always push the demon to reveal his name because the demons are weakened once they reveal who they are.
Some demons cannot bear to hear the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus. as her name alone causes them great agony. Consequently, in such a case, the exorcist will make a point of mentioning her name frequently during his prayers. In due time, the demon will yield, not having the strength to withstand the suffering he is experiencing at the mention of holy names. However, a powerful demon will put up a huge fight before revealing anything about himself. It is this strong resistance that accounts for some of the sensational and all too true stories of super-human strength, the blasphemies, the sarcasm, and other "hellish" behavior that may occur during an exorcism. Indeed, in the case of a severe possession, the demon and the exorcist are in a battle---one to destroy a life and the other to save a life. It is no simple feat to wrestle with pure evil and nearly always, several exorcisms are required before the demon will finally leave the body.
"I recently delivered a very powerful demon whose name was Shroud. I got attacked and so did the other priest who was with me. He had a numbness down his leg for weeks, some kind of nerve damage. In my case it was emotional. We had a hard time delivering this demon. He just wouldn’t come out....but once you get them to divulge their name, they have lost.”
Father Gary Thomas, American Exorcist
After The Exorcism
Having become liberated from the invading, malicious spirits, the penitent must be ever cognizant of her responsibility to live a moral life, lest the demons return to haunt her once again. It is essential that the “patient” pray often and receive the sacraments of communion and confession as frequently as possible. Furthermore, she must align her life with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The penitent must also ask for the prayers of others by maintaining a network of support groups to call upon so that she may "stay the course". You see, the formerly possessed person is not unlike an addict who is still vulnerable to temptation. She must surround herself with good and righteous people who will be there for her and who will pray for her. The penitent did not become oppressed overnight; she must therefore work toward a better life.
In not a few cases, the "patient" may also need psychiatric counseling and medication for years to come. It makes sense. The penitent, after all, has been through a horrific trauma, not unlike a soldier who suffers from PTSD. The good news is that once the patient is freed from oppression it is not unusual for whole families to experience a renewal of their faith---one that is quite profound and much more meaningful than the faith they shared before the exorcism occurred. Thus, a much needed healing occurs within the family unit. Having seen firsthand the battle of goodness over evil, the family's hope and faith is strengthened immensely.
Do You Believe in the Effectiveness of Exorcism?
Just like the doctor who removes tumors from a body, the exorcist can remove demon(s) from the penitent. However, if the patient is unwilling to change their habits and behaviors, all the work of the experts is for naught. When all is said and done---after a successful exorcism, the penitent is free to resume a much better life. The question remains: Will he or she choose to do that which is necessary to keep the evil away or will they welcome the evil back?
To conclude, I leave you with a Catholic prayer of deliverance:
"My Lord, you are all powerful, you are God, you are Father. We beg through your intercession and help of the archangels, Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel for deliverance of our brothers and sisters who are enslaved by the evil one. All saints of heaven, come to our aid."