The Church always has maintained that Satan and the fallen angels are real (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 391-392). They are personal beings, not just a privation of good or merely the evil in people’s hearts. Jesus was very clear about the reality of the devil, and he demonstrated in seven major Gospel accounts how to do exorcisms. He differentiated between healing of natural illness, healing of the effects of sin and the casting out of demons. Jesus empowered and explicitly charged his disciples to cast out demons as part of their mission before he ascended to heaven.
The Church responded to this command and performed many exorcisms from the very first days. Exorcism was an integral part of baptism into the early Church. These early exorcisms were done by laypeople; it was over centuries of experience that the Church wisely limited the ministry to select priests with proper traits and training (see Code of Canon Law, Canon 1172).
Organization of Exorcists
Over the last few generations, there were few exorcists, and knowledge about dealing with extraordinary spiritual problems faded. There was little or no training in seminary, and demons often were dismissed as misunderstood psychiatric problems. In the United States, Protestant denominations remained more active, publishing most of the recent books on deliverance ministry. This has caused Protestant theology to leak into Catholic practices of deliverance prayer. This essentially takes the form of self-directed prayer without grounding deliverance in the sacramental graces.
In the early 1990s, Father Gabriele Amorth and a small group of priests formed the International Association of Exorcists. The first international conference was held in 1994. The group has grown each year, providing training to priests appointed by their bishops, as well as some laypeople who serve as auxiliaries. At the 2016 conference there were 450 members of the association. The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy approved the association’s statutes on June 13, 2014. In 2010, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held a conference on the liturgical and pastoral practice of exorcism at their national meeting in Baltimore.
More recently, the USCCB published a series of questions and answers on possession and exorcism on their website. The bishops affirm that possession and exorcism are realities that the Church has always upheld.
Currently, many dioceses are setting up programs to respond to requests for assistance with extraordinary spiritual problems. Usually one or two priests in a diocese are appointed to be exorcists, and they receive specialized training.
Some amount of training is usually given to the priests so they can help their people with less serious cases than demonic possession. The most common requests are house issues, being probably eight out of 10 requests. These are usually misunderstandings or personal issues, are sometimes souls in purgatory signaling a need for prayer and very rarely are demonic infestations. Catechesis, the sacramental life, a thorough house blessing and Masses offered for the dead resolves most house cases quickly. If there is a demonic infestation, usually the diocesan exorcist becomes involved, and a house exorcism is said in addition to the above steps. If the bishop allows, and the priest is comfortable, they may be assisted through the house exorcism by the exorcist so they can gain some comfort with that prayer.
Some requests are from people who just moved into a house and the cause of the problem is unknown. The steps above usually resolve this; knowing the exact cause is not necessary.
Some house cases arise because of an object brought into the home that is the opposite of blessed (sometimes called cursed). This just means that the demonic has rights to be active in an extraordinary way near that object. If this is the case, the object can have the minor exorcism said over it, followed by a blessing, and it can be removed from the property if the people wish. If the object is inherently evil (such as a symbol of Satanism, etc.) the people often want it removed.
Some houses cases arise from a murder or suicide at that location. Offering Masses for the dead, or saying the office for the dead, usually resolves these cases.
The souls in purgatory usually do not communicate beyond their need for prayer. We see in the lives of a number of saints that poor souls may be allowed to appear and request Masses or prayer, but there isn’t anything else communicated. Scripture forbids necromancy, when the living call to the dead to talk with them. The poor souls do not draw us into sin, but they are allowed in rare cases to petition us for prayer. Souls in purgatory do not do things that are inherently terrifying or destructive. They usually gently signal their presence. When the demonic pretends to be a dead person, there are a few key differences to poor souls. Visually, there is something deformed, missing or hidden. The demonic wants to draw the person into conversation, relationship and dependence. The demonic often do things that are inherently terrifying or disruptive to life, usually leading to loss of sleep and fear in the home.
Are there different kinds of exorcisms?
Exorcisms are divided into two kinds (or forms). Simple or minor forms of exorcism are found in two places: First, for those preparing for baptism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the Rite of Baptism for Children both call for minor exorcisms; second, the appendix of Exorcisms and Related Supplications includes a series of prayers which may be used by the faithful. The second kind is the solemn or “major exorcism,” which is a rite that can only be performed by a bishop or a priest, with the special and express permission of the local ordinary (see Code of Canon Law, Canon 1172). This form is directed “at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation [of a person] from demonic possession” (CCC, No. 1673).
How does a priest become an exorcist?
A priest may be appointed to the office of exorcist either on a stable basis or for a particular occasion (ad actum) by the diocesan bishop. In either case, the exorcist should work closely with, and under the direction of, the bishop.
The second most common requests are people who feel they are oppressed, being about 20 percent of requests. These are complaints of a personal difficulty that is extraordinary, sometimes physical, sometimes mental. People complain of everything from a lot of bad luck in life to being physically assaulted by spirits.
It is important to ensure the person is working with their doctor in addition to any spiritual assistance the Church may offer. Many cases are people trying to make sense of their mental illness, physical illness, aging or medication effects. We should not refuse to pray for people, and these situations require a full medical workup first, but we must ensure they are not eschewing the sciences because we are praying for them.
Signs of Possession
Demonic oppression almost always is rooted in a violation of the First Commandment. The person has turned away from God to another spirit for comfort, information or power. This can take the form of the occult, witchcraft, “magic,” divination, paranormal investigating, New Age practices or other religious practices. Catechesis is important, as most people are not catechized about the First Commandment and so have not stopped, renounced and confessed these practices. It can be helpful to have the person renew their baptismal promises after renouncing this break in their relationship with God.
Once the Sacrament of Penance has removed those sins, some additional prayer may be needed. This is usually deprecatory prayer — a request to Jesus to help the person. (Imprecatory prayer is direct commands to the demon.) This deprecatory prayer can be done in a free-form way, or one of various prayers from books by qualified authors may be used (such as the books written by Father Amorth). The Litany of the Saints has been very effective, though, and this has the advantage of being a Church-approved prayer with a long history of fruitful use.
Demonic possession seems to be on the increase over the last decade or so. The Church requires that licensed medical and psychological professionals rule out mundane explanations and treatment for the complaints of the person. Beyond this, the rite of exorcism requires some documentation of some of the signs of possession. These signs are: knowledge of all languages; knowledge of hidden things the person could not know; reaction to the holy (when it’s not obvious, such as showing them a crucifix); and strength beyond their normal condition. The process of testing for these signs should be done by the diocesan exorcist, as it requires some experience.
Once the case is shown not to be mundane, and some of the extraordinary signs are documented, the case is referred to the bishop. A solemn exorcism of a person can only be done by a priest with permission from their bishop (see Canon 1172).
A Growing Need
The process of solemn exorcism really is a pastoral process of catechesis, renunciation, exorcism sessions and time. Many cases take around six months of weekly sessions; many a few years; and some a decade or longer. Most sessions are a couple of hours, possibly more.
Aftercare is very important after a person is completely freed, as they need to re-form and develop their spiritual life without the presence of the dominating and distorting demons.
In this generation there is more awareness of extraordinary spiritual problems and how to address them. Some seminaries have an introduction to this topic; many dioceses have continuing education for their priests. Many bishops are sending a priest or two for training to be exorcists. As the public has become aware of the Church responding to these needs, many cases are coming forward, many of which are Catholics from our parishes, and many others are from those of other faiths who are seeking help from the Church.
ADAM BLAI is a peritus in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists.