Press reports in the last days seem to suggest that the French have rediscovered the devil. So much so that The Times ran an article last weekend that warned British holiday makers that they need to be aware of something not covered by their holiday insurance: diabolic activity.
You can imagine the surprise on finding such subject matter covered in a decidedly secular newspaper. Further investigation suggested that similar reports had run in other news outlets, with the issue originating, seemingly, in The Economist—of all places—at the start of the summer.
So what is the fuss all about?
It seems that exorcisms are on the rise in France. For many Catholics reading this, two reactions to this news are likely. One is an almost Gallic shrug of the shoulders: there always has been and always shall be exorcisms—plus ça change. Catholics know that the rite of exorcism is neither an historical curiosity nor a mere prop for Hollywood horror movies.
The other reaction may be one of mild surprise. That the rite is being used at all, and so frequently, is a cause of some consolation. It is somewhat unexpected, though, as, in some quarters, a bogus theology has reduced the demonic to ‘symbols’ or worse ‘emotional disturbance’ hampering the rite’s use and, therefore, its effectiveness.
Unfortunately, this latest phenomenon across the Channel has another aspect to it and one that is of greater concern.
You see what is being practiced widely in France today is a variety of ‘do-it-yourself exorcism’. I kid you not. The recent explosion in people exorcising each other is by self-appointed lay people with no canonical status, and probably little real knowledge of what they are doing. There appear to be a growing band of unofficial exorcists advertising their services to the French public. They are offering to evict demons for €100 ($117). Some, helpfully, have a telephone service available. But, if that all sounds too expensive, too intrusive, or just too plain fraudulent, there is always recourse to a ‘home exorcism kit’ retailing for a mere €60 ($70).
Needless to say, such practices and services are not only of little value but also dangerous. The Church is and always has been clear that exorcisms can only be performed by priests duly appointed by the bishop of the diocese wherein that ministry is carried out. The proliferation of such ‘freelance exorcists’ is not new, though.
In 1985, the then Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, felt compelled to issue a Letter to Ordinaries regarding norms on Exorcism. In that communication, the issue of rogue operators in the field of deliverance ministry was addressed as follows:
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of prayer groups in the Church aimed at seeking deliverance from the influence of demons, while not actually engaging in real exorcisms. These meetings are led by lay people, even when a priest is present.
As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been asked how one should view these facts, this Dicastery considers it necessary to inform Bishops of the following response:
1. Canon 1172 of the Code of Canon Law states that no one can legitimately perform exorcisms over the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local Ordinary (§ 1), and states that this permission should be granted by the local Ordinary only to priests who are endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life (§ 2). Bishops are therefore strongly advised to stipulate that these norms be observed.
As one would expect from the cardinal who would later become Pope Benedict, his guidance is clear, concise and concrete and in an area that can quickly deteriorate into confusion.
So is it the case that the British news reports have got it wrong and that, rather than diabolic activity, the thing to fear while visiting France this summer are the services of unofficial exorcists?
The Times report also contained the views of Father Emmanuel Coquet. He is the Deputy-General Secretary of the French Bishops Conference and also helps to run France’s National Bureau of Exorcists. His comments were sober, but in some ways, more troubling. It is true, he said, that the designated priests in Paris are now carrying out exorcisms more frequently than in recent years—the figures have leapt from 15 each year to about 50. Annually, around 2,500 people contact the Paris diocese asking advice on the matter of possession. Wisely, the priest went on to say that this was not a case of the devil being more active than previously, but that, with less support for many from family and friends, modern society offered greater openings to evil. ‘It is true we are seeing an increase in the number of people who are fragile and isolated, without family links to support them… We live in a worrying society where the Devil can leave his mark.’
Fr. Coquet also went on to make the important point that many were coming seeking exorcism for their ills—real or imagined—when recourse to the Sacraments and prayer was needed more, at least in the first instance. His reported comments suggest that within French society there is a growing number of people who recognize some form of evil in their lives but do not know of the means by which to counter its influence.
To return to the 1985 letter from the Congregation of the Faith: in his concluding remarks Cardinal Ratzinger points a way forward.
Drawing attention to these norms, however, should in no way distance the faithful from praying that, as Jesus taught us, they may be delivered from evil (cf. Mt 6:13). Finally, Pastors may take this opportunity to recall what the Tradition of the Church teaches concerning the role proper to the sacraments and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Angels and Saints in the Christian’s spiritual battle against evil spirits.
We do not need self-appointed ‘exorcists’ or fake ‘home exorcism kits.’ Catholics need regular Confession and Holy Mass, and a daily prayer life—including, if possible, the Rosary. By the faithful and fervent practice of our faith we discover the real spiritual means by which to ‘do battle’. In the end, evil in our lives—in all its forms—must be drowned in a sea of goodness.
Perhaps, however, there is some consolation to be had from this latest rash of press speculation. It was a French writer, Charles Baudelaire, who gave us the quote: La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu'il n'existe pas. (Roughly translated as: The devil's greatest trick is to persuade us that he does not exist.) It seems in France he is making a comeback of sorts. At least for this reminder, and its inherent warning, we can be grateful.