Exorcism is a Powerful Sacramental, Not a Sideshow

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, “The Exorcism”, Folio 166r
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, “The Exorcism”, Folio 166r (photo: Public Domain)

Helpless victims fall to the sidewalk, contorting and screaming while two men dressed as Catholic priests hold out crucifixes and invoke the name of Jesus Christ. These scenes occurred around the building where Comic-Con was being held in San Diego, California. The outbursts initially surprise and disturb crowds who quickly recover with many pulling out cell phones to record the horrific drama. The reoccurring scenes, it turns out, are “flash exorcisms” performed by actors to promote FOX TV’s new series The Exorcist.

Having interviewed several exorcists over the years to write on the topic of spiritual warfare, I found the flash exorcisms unsettling. For FOX, it’s an advertising ploy to attract attention to a TV series, which they hope “will send chills down your spine.” The producers say they have based the series off actual historical cases of possession, and claim true possession and exorcisms are horrifying and real.

Yet, the skits seem to belittle that reality. I asked a couple of real exorcists what they thought about the skits. They have personally witnessed what it means for someone to have their body taken over by an evil spirit for real rather than as part of an acting gig.

Two Exorcists Weigh In

Fr. Patrick (not his real name) is a parish priest who has been a designated diocesan exorcist for 6 years and also apprenticed for 6 years under an experienced exorcist. When told about the “flash exorcisms” he said it was turning the sacred rite of exorcism into a sideshow, or a circus show. “This is a very serious spiritual battle - the power and authority of God over evil, an evil that wants to deceive and destroy human beings.”

Fr. Patrick was actually inspired to become an exorcist after seeing the original 1973  movie 'the Exorcist' while he was in the seminary. “At the time, it confirmed what I sensed already,” he said. “However, I did not say that I enjoyed the movie, nor did I say that I thought that it was entertaining, nor did I say that I thought it was a good form of entertainment.”

Fr. Gary Thomas of the Diocese of San Jose in California is a parish priest and was trained as an exorcist at the Vatican in 2005. He is the priest that inspired the movie The Rite. According to him, staging an exorcism as a promotion for the TV series is misguided. “People think that exorcisms are just make-believe,” he said. “I can assure you that, that is the farthest thing from the truth. Satan is very real and would like us to believe that he is just the boogey man. Making fun of a religious truth in this case is just ignorant.”  

Fr. Thomas noted that the entertainers are not necessarily blasphemous because they really do not know what they are doing. “I had heard that Fox was putting this series together,” he said. “I doubt that it will be very successful in the long run because the producers could not possibly understand what this ministry is all about and the authentic suffering that takes place in the people who are afflicted by Satan and his agents.”

The Real Practice of Exorcisms

The New Testament recorded that Jesus exorcised demons. Catholic priests have done likewise throughout the history of the Church. Yet, the Rite of Exorcism went into a sort of dormancy for a time—widely ignored and treated with superstition by many both inside and outside the Church. These days, however, more people are taking exorcisms seriously.

A turnaround of sorts began in 2004 when Pope John Paul II instructed every Catholic diocese to appoint an exorcist. He frequently warned Catholics that Satan is very real and very dangerous.

In 2012, the Pope Leo XIII Institute began to serve bishops, priests, and exorcists, and also deacons and laity who support them, in the spiritual formation to bring the light of Christ to dispel evil and to heal the afflicted. In November of 2015, 55 exorcists, priests, and deacons graduated from the four, 10-day sessions that were held over the course of 2 years. A second cohort of exorcists, priests, and deacons are enrolled in the 2016–2017 program.

It’s important to note that the Catholic Church never advertises the exorcism ministry. Medical experts are called in to rule out other causes besides evil and the identity of the diocesan exorcists is often kept hidden so as to avoid undue attention.

The power of Jesus Christ is what is ultimately stressed as important. It is he who possesses absolute power over evil and the Church and priests are his conduits. In light of this, the flash exorcisms are not only irreverent skits of a serious rite, but there is the troubling lack of reverence for Jesus Christ. Using a crucifix and calling his name should be used to promote salvation and not a TV show.