Question: I noticed that Pope Francis is giving greater recognition to exorcists and exorcism. My own pastor, however, sees this as a problem and seems to be a critic of exorcism. Why would a priest be critical of this?
— Name withheld, Connecticut
Answer: It is indeed a good thing that the pope has given encouragement to the ministry of exorcism. It is proper that we recover an important part of our spiritual tradition, which was significantly lost, especially here in America, in the past 40 years.
While I cannot read the mind of the priest critic you cite, we might do well to interpret his remarks as concerns rather than outright rejection. For, as in most areas of pastoral life, there are pitfalls and exaggerations to be avoided. Those who practice deliverance ministry, including formal exorcism, are quite aware that demons often interact with a host of spiritual, emotional and mental struggles in people’s lives. And many (not all) who approach the Church are often desperate for solutions and hope for something simple and quick. Alas, it is not usually simple or quick. Deliverance ministry more often involves a lengthy and multifaceted approach, which includes deliverance prayers along with the sacraments, spiritual direction and, in some cases, psychotherapy and psychiatric interventions. To be avoided is a kind of magical thinking wherein it is supposed that the mere recitation of the prayers without undertaking other avenues of spiritual growth will bring quick results.
Another pastoral struggle involved is that many people today often ascribe exaggerated powers to demons and, at the same time, underestimate the power of angels, sacraments, prayer, the word of God and the grace of Jesus Christ.
Thus, those who seek deliverance ministry (including exorcism) must seek to grow in faith, in the power of the sacraments and in the spiritual life. All of us must lay hold of the truth that Jesus Christ is more powerful than any demon, including Satan himself, and not give way to exaggerated or superstitious fears.
Hence, like most other things in the spiritual life, growing in faith and holiness is at the heart of the solution. The prayers can help, and should be offered. Cynicism about exorcism and ascribing it to the “lunatic fringe” of the Church is neither healthy nor true to our spiritual tradition. But exorcism is not magic; it is a journey in faith.
Only priests can purify?
Question: Are there theological reasons that only the priest or deacon can purify the sacred vessels at Mass?
— Chris Cunningham, Arlington, Virginia
Answer: I am not aware of theological reasons for this norm. More likely, it is a prudential pastoral stance, which exists to encourage the priest to be more vigilant that vessels are properly purified. Over the past decades, there have been problems associated with the proper purification of vessels, which led to small fragments of the host and drops of the precious blood being found about. There were also problems associated with the precious blood being poured down sinks, etc. Priests are expected to be guardians of the sacred Eucharist. The requirement that the priest now personally attend to purifications seems more a disciplinary norm than a strictly theological matter.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.