Does the Church Perform Exorcisms?

FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

I was watching the movie "The Exorcist" with some of my friends. Can the devil really possess someone? Does the Church really do exorcisms? I heard that the movie is based on a real story. Is that true?

 
The devil and his demons can indeed possess an individual. The New Testament presents several stories of diabolical possession and our Lordís exorcism of the demons. For instance, Jesus exorcized the demons (who identify themselves as “legion” ) of Gerasa. The possessed man was so strong he was able to pull apart the chains that bound him and smash them. In the end, the demons entered the swine and destroyed them. (Cf. Mark 5:1-20). In each of the exorcism stories, we see the power of Christ triumphantly vanquishing the devil and his demons.

Christ also empowered the Apostles to cast out demons in His name: “Then He summoned His 12 disciples and gave them authority to expel unclean spirits and to cure sickness and disease of every kind” (Matthew 10:1). The practice of exorcism is recorded in the writings of the early Church Fathers, including St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), Tertullian (d. 230), and St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386). Over the course of the centuries, the Church has well documented cases of possession and exorcism, including the one to which the reader refers.

Given this brief Biblical and historical foundation, we can better examine the issue. Father Jordan Aumann, O.P., a noted professor of spiritual theology, offers the following definition: “Diabolical possession is a phenomenon in which the devil invades the body of a living person and moves the faculties and organs as if he were manipulating a body of his own. The devil truly resides within the body of the unfortunate victim, and he operates in it and treats it as his own property. Those who suffer this despotic invasion are said to be possessed” (Spiritual Theology, p. 408). However, the soul cannot be entered or overcome and thus remains free; in a sense, the soul ó really the person ó is like in a state of suspended animation. Pope Benedict XIV in his teaching “De servorum Dei beatificatione, et beatorum canonizatione” stated, “Demons, in the individuals whom they possess, are like motors within the bodies which they move, but in such a way that they impress no quality on the body nor do they give it any new mode of existence nor, strictly speaking, do they constitute, together with the possessed person, a single being.”

In determining whether a person is possessed by the devil or his demons, the Church would first make sure he underwent thorough physical and psychiatric examinations. Eliminating these natural causes, Church officials would seek other signs: unexplainable physical phenomena, such as levitation or the uncaused movement of objects; the knowledge and usage of archaic languages which the person would have no way of previously knowing, such as speaking Aramaic; and the secret knowledge of a personís life, particularly the exorcist, which no other person would know. The devil also reveals his presence by acts of anger and violence, and through blasphemous, sacrilegious, profane, and obscene remarks. The bishop would authorize an exorcism only after serious examination and a careful weighing of all of the evidence.

The Roman Ritual prescribes a Rite of Exorcism, a series of prayers, blessings and invocations in the exorcizing of the devil. The holy arsenal of weapons used in an exorcism include sacramental confession, the reception of Holy Communion, fasting and prayer (particularly saying the Rosary), the use of sacramentals (like blessings with holy water, the presence of a crucifix or other religious images), blessings with the relics of saints, and the invocation of the names of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Michael. The ritual is repeated until the devil is cast out of the person, at which time the exorcist petitions God to never permit the devil to possess the person again.

During the course of the diabolical possession and even the exorcism, the person has not only periods of crisis when the struggle with evil is most apparent, but also periods of calm when one thinks the possession has ended. Interestingly, after the exorcism, the person does not remember what transpired while being possessed.

Why would God allow the devil to possess someone? We must remember that we all contend with the temptations of the Prince of this World. After all, we are the weak victims of Original Sin and need Godís grace to do what is holy and good. Consequently, spiritual writers think that a person has some initial openness to such a possession, through, for example, living a mortally sinful lifestyle, the habitual practice of evil, the desire to explore the occult and the fascination with forms of spiritism, magic, and sorcery.

Given this explanation of diabolical possession and exorcism, next week Straight Answers will relay some facts about the story which served as a basis for both the book and the movie, The Exorcist.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Saunders, Rev. William. "Does the Church Perform Exorcisms?" Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

THE AUTHOR

Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald


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