Battling the Devil: The Role of Laity in Exorcisms

Exorcists often call on the prayers, charisms and professional expertise of laypeople to help them in their ministry.

In recent years, laypeople have become an important part of this ministry to drive out demons from people and places.
In recent years, laypeople have become an important part of this ministry to drive out demons from people and places. (photo: Leka Sergeeva / Shutterstock)

In the Catholic Church, only bishops or priests given permission by bishops can undertake a major exorcism to liberate a person from demonic possession. In this way, the full weight of the Church and the power of Jesus Christ acting in the person of the priest or bishop is a force that overcomes the devil.

In recent years, laypeople have become an important part of this ministry to drive out demons from people and places. Exorcists assemble a team that usually includes medical professionals to discern between spiritual and psychological issues and laypeople to offer prayer and physical support.

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti is president and founder of the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal, which was established to offer help, education and training in this field to clergy, religious and laity. He also conducts exorcisms and shared some of his experiences in his book, Diary of an American Exorcist.

“The old days of the exorcist working alone are gone,” he told the Register “We work in a team with laity, deacons and priests.”

The laity have critical functions, according to him, that include conducting psychological evaluations, offering spiritual direction and accompanying afflicted people in and outside the sessions. “We also have spiritually-gifted laity who are a great help in discernment,” Msgr. Rossetti said.

There are many who want to be involved in this ministry, he explained, but only a few are accepted.

“They are typically spiritually mature Catholics who stay close to the sacraments and have a strong personal spiritual life of prayer,” he said. “When properly screened and prepared — especially living a solid Catholic spiritual life — they are protected against the wiles of the Evil One.”

Msgr. John Esseff

Msgr. John Esseff, a 94-year-old retired exorcist in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, still gives retreats to seminarians and priests and officiates at Mass and healing services. He is one of the founders of the Pope Leo XIII Institute, established in 2012 at the request of American bishops to train exorcists. Education is also offered for laypeople who serve as team members, although important formation comes from being mentored by experienced exorcists.

“I really believe they [laypeople in the ministry] are to be commended,” Msgr. Esseff said. “When a team gets together, they are able to be far more effective against Satan. That is really the Church in operation.”

Possessed individuals have superhuman strength, according to him, so having people to restrain them when necessary is important.

“I’ve seen an 80-pound woman lift up a 200-pound man,” Msgr. Esseff said. “I’ve seen the damage that can be done if you don’t have people to hold them down. There are those kinds of people, and those who pray — and also psychiatrists. Each one uses his or her gift against this enemy of mankind, and together there’s tremendous power against Satan.”

It is important to emphasize that baptism protects Christians from the devil generally, and leading a sacramental life is the best protection.

Psychiatric Evaluation

“I never volunteered for this work, but just responded to requests for many years for my assistance,” Dr. Richard Gallagher, an Ivy League-trained psychiatrist with a private practice in Westchester County, New York, explained to the Register. He is regularly called upon by a network of exorcists across the country to help evaluate and advise on cases and occasionally to be present at exorcisms.

“The first exorcist-priest asked for my help in assessing a severe oppression,” he said, “then many others later asked for my professional assessments of large numbers of suspected — and sometimes false — cases of possessions, as well. I have, undoubtedly, seen more such genuine cases than any physician in the world and probably in history.”

Gallagher was asked to join the Vatican-approved International Association of Exorcists in the early 1990s and is its longest-standing American member as a non-exorcist scientific adviser. He has written a book, Demonic Foes, about actual cases — some demonic and others psychological.

“More recently, I have even been invited to collaborate on a Hollywood movie about a possessed Satanist I came to know well and who gave me permission to tell her story of a ‘once-in-a-century’ possession,” he said. “She had amazing psychic abilities and even levitated during her exorcism, as I describe in the book.”

The woman had also entered into a phone conversation between Gallagher and the exorcist, though she was many miles away, and she knew things about Gallagher she would have no natural way of knowing.

He said that such encounters don’t disturb him, as he relies on the prayers of others and his own strong spiritual life for protection.

Expert in Demonology

Adam Blai is an appointed peritus (expert) of religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and has served as the director of institutional ministries there since 2014. He is an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome. His website, “Religious Demonology,” offers help and information about the demonic.

Blai earned a master’s degree in adult clinical psychology from Penn State and worked in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where he conducted hundreds of psychological evaluations as part of the parole process. He began to help with diocesan investigations around 17 years ago.

Blai’s recent book is The Exorcism Files: True Stories of Demonic Possession that includes some of the cases he has encountered. In his first case, he told the Register, “They wanted a psychological take on the family members. I saw some things that impressed me as likely spiritual. There were black shadows moving, horrible odors that would come and go and then leave no trace. I was scratched by something when nothing was physically there to scratch me.”

Blai said he is not afraid of the devil. “I think God takes that fear away for the work.” When it comes to backlash, he explained that the devil is limited. “The devil is a creature on a leash,” Blai said. “In the end, he cannot do everything he wants, but only what God allows. He serves in spite of himself. By his activity, he reveals himself and points to God. By manifesting, people realize God is real.”

A common element Blai sees in demonic cases is people breaking the First Commandment not to have false gods before them. “So many people don’t even know that, so they get seduced into a relationship with the demon until it’s too late to back out.”

House-based cases are easy compared to people when it comes of driving out demons, according to Blai. “If there is a demonic infestation of a house, it is often taken care of with a house blessing and an Epiphany blessing [written with blessed chalk] on the threshold.”

He said he is more cautious around living humans than he is with fallen angels.

“Demons, I don’t worry about it. The people who serve the demons, their human free will is not limited by God. Demons are completely subservient, but people are freer to act.”

Blai said he did experience harassment from the devil in his home early on. “I think God allowed it as a test to see if I wanted to do this. I had a priest friend come and bless the house, and it stopped.”

Blai said he understands that people are intrigued by this topic because it touches on the spiritual world manifesting itself in the material world.

“People are hungry for any proof of the spiritual world,” he said. “It’s the same reason why books on miracles are so popular — it’s proof of God.”

He reinforces the Church’s strict warning against any dabbling in the occult. “Focus on the sacraments and basic prayers of the Church,” he advises. “Like Padre Pio said, the Rosary is probably the greatest weapon. Trust in the prayers that the Church gave us.”

Diocesan Administrator in Exorcism and Deliverance

In her book A Family Guide to Spiritual Warfare, Kathleen Beckman shared some of the experiences and insights she has gained through her work as a diocesan administrator in the exorcism and deliverance ministry. Her work includes accompanying people throughout their journey to healing, which can be a long process.

Sixteen years ago, several priests invited Beckman to assist them in the ministry; she was later invited to be a faculty member of the Pope Leo XIII Institute. Her involvement in the Church as a coordinator for the Orange County Magnificat, hosting a weekly prayer cenacle for priests and laity in her home, and daily Mass attendance and regular adoration, shows that a strong spiritual life is essential for this work.

Her formation came through instruction from Mundelein Seminary and the Association of International Exorcists’ course in Rome, along with observing some of the most difficult exorcisms performed by a very busy exorcist for two years. Prayer and discernment with her priest-spiritual director led her to trust that it was a calling from God that has born good fruits.

The difficult times for her are when people drop out of the exorcism process. “It is difficult to experience that some cases, especially the Satanic ritual-abuse situations, end up without closure,” she said.

“Sometimes the man or woman simply quits receiving the ministry and is seduced back into a cult halfway through the process of liberation. It’s challenging, also, whenever a person is demonically possessed, oppressed or obsessed due to a sinful lifestyle that they do not want to give up. They desire the demonic torment to end but refuse to close all the open doors in their lives wherein the evil spirits enter.”

Despite the intensity of her line of work, Beckman said her husband and two grown children support her by praying for the priest, the team and person needing help. They encourage her to be “a brave warrior” for Christ.

Her presence as a female is especially important for exorcism cases involving women, according to Beckman. “Sometimes the prayer sessions become quite physical due to demonic manifestations. Women on the team assist the woman receiving prayer and help protect the priest. The evil spirits will sometimes try to harm the priest physically. I feel my role is a Marian one. Mother Mary is quite tangible in this ministry.”

For anyone doubting if the demonic is merely an overactive imagination, Beckman shared: “I have witnessed levitation off the floor; persons morphed into animal form; limbs have contorted backward — sometimes the superhuman strength of a demonized person makes it difficult for six people to restrain him or her. A person may know languages they never studied or secret knowledge about a priest or team member. I’ve seen a forked-tongue and cursed objects such as nails expelled from a person. Eyes go completely white or black. A demon manifested in a person’s stomach or back. These are a few things I have personally witnessed.”

Although being a direct part of an exorcist and deliverance team is not for everyone, Beckman explained that there are other ways to help. “We also need people who are not on site, who pray for exorcists, teams and people seeking liberation from evil spirits,” she said. “A person in adoration can be the intercessor who procures the grace to help set a person free. If one feels called to help in this ministry, perhaps begin there.”