For most Americans, the word “exorcism” conjures up images of dramatic Hollywood scenes or superstitious medieval practices that have long since outlived their usefulness. But in the Catholic Church, the rite of exorcism remains a necessary — albeit extremely rare — means of combating evil. 

With exorcists in short supply and high demand, the U.S. bishops held a two-day, closed-door meeting before their November general assembly in Baltimore to discuss the use of the rite in to-day’s Church. The conference, attended by more than 100 priests and bishops from around the country, focused on the scriptural basis for exorcism and the steps included in the rite, while offering practical guidelines for dioceses to respond to requests from those seeking an exorcism. 

“There are only a handful of priests around the country that have any training or expertise in this area, and they get inquiries from all over the country,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, which organized the meeting. 

Because canon law requires bishops to grant permission to a priest to perform an exorcism, Bishop Paprocki told Our Sunday Visitor, it is important that they be informed about the use of the rite. 

“Certainly it is not required that a bishop appoint an exorcist on a stable basis, but I do think every bishop should be prepared to handle these kinds of inquiries,” he said. 

Skeptical approach 

Exorcism, a sacramental first established in 1614 and revised by the Vatican in 1998, is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the “expulsion of demons” or “the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church.” Both the Catechism and the rite itself, however, prescribe a detailed process of evaluation prior to performing an exorcism. 

“Fundamentally, the Church trains the exorcist as a skeptic,” Father Jeffrey Grob, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told OSV. “The presumption is that there is some natural, organic explanation for what is going on.” 

The primary job of the exorcist — one that consumes much more of their time than actual exorcisms — is to work with people who feel they are possessed to uncover the root cause of the problem. For Father Gary Thomas, an exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., that includes personal interviews with the individual and relying on a team of trained medical professionals, including a physician, clinical psychologist and psychiatrist, to evaluate cases. 

“It is really a discernment,” Father Thomas told OSV. “You need to ask a lot of personal questions about their history and other practices they may have been involved in, including their own faith life. Usually you can ascertain from the answers to those questions what might be going on.” 

Common signs of possession are those that have no logical explanation, including fluency in a language the person never studied, ability to reveal secrets they would have no way of knowing, extraordinary strength or aversion to the sacred. In most cases, however, the evaluation reveals that something other than demonic possession is causing the person’s symptoms. 

Nonetheless, Father Thomas feels that priests must be aware that cases of possession can and do occur. Few seminaries today, however, offer any instruction on such matters. 

“There has to be something in the formation of our priests that begins to make them aware that this also is part of their ministry,” Father Thomas said. “People keep coming with these issues, whether they are contrived or real, and our priests need to know how to minister to them.” 

Pastoral response 

According to Father Grob, the high number of requests that exorcists receive is likely a reflection of society’s focus on finding a “quick fix” to one’s problems. But even though exorcism is usually not necessary, there are still ways for the Church to assist those who fear they are possessed. 

“Genuine cases of demonic possession are rare, but that does not mean that there isn’t a whole range of other things that are taking place in people’s lives,” Father Grob said. 

“In many ways, I feel the work of the exorcist nowadays is as much an evangelist and a catechist as he is anything else,” he explained. “Because the vast majority of people that I see, and I am happy to work with, they don’t need to see the specialist. They need to see their parish priest.” 

In essence, Father Grob said, the Church’s role should be to respond with compassion to requests for exorcism by helping individuals find the appropriate assistance to their problems. 

“It is the pastoral ministry of the Church,” he said. “That’s why the rite exists — it is to respond to the needs of the people.” 

Ordinary evil 

While it is important for bishops and priests to be prepared for questions about exorcism, Bishop Paprocki said that placing too much emphasis on the rarely used rite poses the danger of diverting Catholics from understanding the more common influences of evil in the world. 

“I think part of the unfortunate consequences of people focusing on exorcism is it leads people to think that is the only area where the devil is active in our world,” the bishop said. “Quite the contrary. The devil exists, and he functions in our everyday world in a very ordinary way.” 

Specifically, Bishop Paprocki explained, people face temptation and choices between good and evil on a daily basis. While those situations may often lead an individual down a negative path, the remedy is not to resort to the extraordinary means of exorcism but to make use of the sacraments, prayer and devotions. 

“The ordinary means of combating the temptations of the devil are through the spiritual riches and resources that the Church offers,” Bishop Paprocki said. “In effect, it is much more powerful to go to confession, receive the Sacrament of Penance and be absolved of our sins than it is to have an exorcism.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Fact vs. Fiction (sidebar)

Unlike familiar big-screen portrayals, the rite of exorcism is rarely as dramatic in real life. 

The rite generally takes place in a church or gathering space with a group of people present to offer support through prayer. The priest, having prepared himself through confession and the celebration of Mass, begins by praying the Litany of the Saints. The rite continues with readings from Scripture and the psalms, a series of prayers and the sprinkling of holy water. The rite is often repeated several times, and following the exorcism the person may be directed for further spiritual or psychological counseling. 

But according to Father Gary Thomas, whose own story of preparing to be an exorcist is the basis for the book and upcoming film “The Rite,” real-life exorcisms lack the more outlandish elements of the Hollywood versions. 

“There are dramatic manifestations where people’s limbs are flying or they are rolling their eyes or speaking a language they have no competency in,” Father Thomas said. “But there’s no green pea soup or head spinning or things of that sort. I have never seen a bed levitating, but the other classical signs I have seen in some people.”