Strange and Spooky Things: Exorcist Reflects on Terrifying Consequences of a Post-Christian Search for ‘Spiritual Experience’
A Catholic University of America panel recently discussed some of the pitfalls of an increasingly secular mindset regarding spirituality.
WASHINGTON — As people in the U.S. become less affiliated with formal religion, their quests for spiritual experiences can lead to very dangerous places, according to Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, an exorcist for the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America hosted a panel discussion Wednesday on “The Weird Future of American Religion,” moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and featuring Msgr. Rossetti, alongside Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, and Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at the Plough quarterly.
Msgr. Rossetti said that his work as an exorcist started as a “quiet ministry” for the first 12 years, but in the past five years, he has seen a large uptick in interest from the general public.
He recounted how a young person in New York reached out to him a few months ago and said, “My faith is wavering, and I want you to prove to me that there are demons.”
Over a Zoom call, the priest showed the person some photographic evidence of demons that he described as “quite striking,” but “not for the public,” and this convinced the young person of their existence.
Msgr. Rossetti said this was just one example of how people today “don’t accept what their parents or grandparents taught them about religion, but they want to find something for themselves; they want something they can experience, and demons are something; people say, ‘I can experience that.’”
“That’s one of the reasons why this topic is so interesting to people, because something really does happen, and that’s striking to people,” he said, “but there’s a downside to it, and people don’t realize it, and so one of my main missions is to warn people.”
Amid a discussion of the American public’s current views on religion, Burton highlighted statistics that around 30% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated and pointed out that while it may seem from this that religion is on the decline, 72% of the religiously unaffiliated believe in a higher power and about 20% believe in God as described in the Bible.
“Something clearly a little bit more interesting and weird than straightforward secularism is going on,” she said, based on these findings, noting that there are different avenues through which this “eclectic spiritual hunger” is emerging that she explored in her book Strange Rites.
She said one element of the religious landscape is “remixing religion” or “the idea that you can get your rituals from Place A, your sense of meaning from Place B, and your sense of community from Place C — and mix and match.” She gave the example of someone doing yoga meditations as well as “sage cleansing” while still attending church, but only on Christmas Eve.
She said that the belief that “the purpose of the religious life, or one’s religious identity or self-assertion, is to custom and curate something that fits one’s own internal, psychological sense of well-being actually is a pretty robust assumption and I think a relatively widespread one.”
She characterized a rise of interest in the occult, wellness culture and other modern spirituality as part of an “obsession with turning inwards and with connecting one’s own internal psychological state to a kind of nebulous energy out there in the universe.”
She added that interest in the occult and spiritual forces beyond institutional religion is “indicative of a real and often incredibly genuine hunger for something tangible, for something real, for something enchanted, without necessarily a systematic sense of what the implications, metaphysical or moral, might be.”
A Spiritual Battle
Msgr. Rossetti warned about the consequences of such spiritual exploration leading to witchcraft and the occult.
“We do all have this spiritual hunger, so if you throw out Christianity, you’re going to be looking for something,” he said, and he warned people that they won’t find what they’re looking for in witchcraft. “You go down that path — and all the witches I’ve talked to, worked with — it gets darker, uglier and angrier and more isolated.”
He described some recent incidents, including hearing from one woman who had gotten into witchcraft over the pandemic and dealt with “things flying around the room … doors smashing like a bad movie.” He said the woman “couldn’t stand going to church; she felt this nausea; she felt enraged — all this sort of demonic stuff was getting bad, and she realized she did something wrong so she went to confession.” She is now attending church and attending Msgr. Rossetti’s online once-a-month deliverance sessions.
The Washington exorcist ministers to people online through CatholicExorcism.org, which features the resources of the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal, a nonprofit Catholic organization that “prays with people who are spiritually suffering and in need of healing and deliverance” and “conducts spiritual education workshops and trains clergy, religious and laity.” He also has a presence on Instagram and TikTok.
“We as Christians try to discern and do God’s will,” he said. “In the occult and witchcraft,” by contrast, people try to create their own future, saying, “I’ll throw a curse for this, a spell for that, and I’m going to take control over my life,” which he said is the devil’s approach.
He said that being a part of the exorcism ministry is “exciting, but, also, it sort of rips the veil off life. What is life? Life is a spiritual battle between good and evil,” and “Which side do you want to be on?” is the vital question.
“When someone finishes our program and gets liberated, they’re in the front pews of the church because they found out that what the Church teaches is true,” he said.
“There’s God, and there’s demons, and the only way to get rid of them is Jesus.”