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What is exorcism? Unveiling the Church’s mysterious rite against the powers of evil

Serious action: Anthony Hopkins stars in a scene from the 2010 exorcism movie The Rite. Photo: CNS

LAST weekend the Colombian Bishop of Buenaventura joined a vehicle procession through his city’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, the scene of 54 violent deaths this year, sprinkling holy water in an effort to drive out the demonic. 

“Where blood ran, where blood was shed we will now pour holy water as a sign of reparation in the place of the dead fallen by violence,” Bishop Rubén Darío Jaramillo Montoya said of the unprecedented action.

Buenaventura is a city beset by violence, drug smuggling and poverty, and Bishop Montoya disclosed he would conduct the exorcism soon after a 10-year-old girl was tortured and murdered.

“We have to drive the devil out of Buenaventura, to see if we can restore the peace and tranquillity that our city has lost due to so many crimes, acts of corruption and with so much evil and drug-trafficking that invades our port,” he told local radio.

Closer to home exorcisms sometimes make the news, and did so recently when an Australian priest talked about his experience after arriving back from attending the Vatican’s training course on exorcism.

The course is held at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and was introduced last year, reportedly because of a shortage of exorcists worldwide – and a growing demand for their services.

So how true is the demand for exorcisms?

Last year, the Christian think tank Theos reported that exorcisms were a “booming industry” in the United Kingdom, particularly among Pentecostal churches.

Within the Archdiocese of Brisbane, it appears there is also a rising demand, but that’s a statement that needs explaining.

In a document entitled “Freedom in Christ – Dealing with Spiritual Affliction”, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge delivers some straight talking on the subject.

“It is surprising to me how many people make requests to my office for exorcism,” he wrote.

“If anything, the number seems to have grown …

“Many today no longer believe in the reality of supernatural beings such as angels and demons, but the Church has always recognised the spiritual domain, which can at times be experienced in a supernatural way.

“In the darkness opened by original sin lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which seeks to set human beings against one another and apart from the source of all being.

“As the Church in Brisbane, we are called to respond when relationship is severed in this way, in order to restore relationship with Christ.

“This is not an action of an individual, but of the whole Church.

“The Church calls upon the power of the Risen Christ to break the power of those spirits which disrupt, divide and finally destroy.”

In the Archdiocese of Brisbane there has been about 50 requests for exorcism in the past three years, but only one of those cases was verified as requiring a priest for exorcism.

The other cases sometimes required house blessings, more general prayer ministry or at times the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist.

According to the “Freedom in Christ” document demonic influence can vary from mild to extreme.

Mild influence includes ordinary activity – the temptations that afflict all people.

Then there is extraordinary activity, including diabolical oppression and diabolical obsession, that has symptoms including sudden attacks of obsessive thoughts, sometimes even rationally absurd, in which the afflicted person is unable to free themselves.

In this state the spirit almost always influences dreams.

“As with other forms of demonic phenomena, it can be at times diagnosed as evidence of mental illness,” the Church document says.

“Psychological consultation is an important element in diagnosis and treatment.

“It must be understood, however, that the demonic and the natural can exist side by side, as well as standing on their own.”

At the extreme end of the demonic influence scale are “diabolical infestation” – including influences over houses (haunted houses), and influences over “things and animals”.

In the most extreme cases “demonic possession” is such that “an evil spirit takes possession of the body (not the soul) and can speak and act without the knowledge or consent of the afflicted person”.

“According to the Rite of Exorcism, some signs of possession include speaking or understanding a language otherwise unknown to the afflicted person, extraordinary strength, and the ability to reveal the unknown,” the document, Freedom of Christ states.

“There is no fixed model for demonic possession. Each case is unique.”

The Brisbane archdiocese has one exorcist priest, whose identity remains confidential and who works not in isolation but with a team.

He has not attended training in the Vatican but instead is completing studies at the Pope Leo XIII Institute in the United States – a private, non-profit organisation set up to educate and train priests in the ministry of exorcism and deliverance. 

The archdiocese has guidelines within a pastoral framework for responding to requests for exorcism.

The guidelines stress a caring approach that begins “with the traditional channels of God’s healing and grace”.

“As such, all complainants will be encouraged to regularly attend Mass and receive Holy Communion, seek out a regular confessor for the Sacrament of Penance, spend time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and develop a strong devotional life of prayer and meditation on the scriptures,” the guidelines say.

The guidelines point out that exorcism is a journey which does not end with the Rite of Exorcism, “it continues through a life lived in faithfulness to Christ and his Church”. 

“Exorcism is an act of the Church, not an individual,” they say. 

Finally, it is essential to note that whilst it is helpful to understand something of this area of the Catholic tradition, an unhealthy curiosity and fascination with the demonic can prove dangerous. 

St Paul reminds us: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

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