ROME — In an age where psychodrama sells, exorcism is a media darling.
It’s a step above mere horror stories into a dimension we find both loathsome yet compelling. It is a drama that is hard to shake off, for the Catholic Church recognizes demonic possession as a reality.
Thus, any exorcism movie inevitably includes a Catholic priest, standing in the person of Jesus, with the power to expel demons through the rite of exorcism.
The latest entry in the spate of exorcism movies, The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins, follows a skeptical seminary student who attends exorcism school at the Vatican. It is inspired by the real-life training of Father Gary Thomas from the United States, which is chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by journalist Matt Baglio. Father Thomas, ordained in 1983, volunteered to be trained for his diocese.
“When I went to Rome on sabbatical, the bishop suggested I take a course on exorcism there,” Father Thomas explained. The course, offered at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College, covered the spiritual, medical, historical and sociological aspects of demonic forces. However, Father Thomas said his real learning came through assisting with 80 exorcisms in eight months under Father Carmine De Filippis, an experienced exorcist. Initially, he questioned if people’s reactions were genuine.
“I wondered if people were just acting or if there was a placebo effect,” he said. Flailing about, protracted yawns, drooling, falling out of chairs and guttural voices did not necessarily prove demonic possession, he reasoned.
But as the manifestations he witnessed became more extreme, such as speaking languages a person had never studied, knowing things they had no way of knowing, taking on a serpentine appearance and vomiting nails, Father Thomas said he became convinced.
Need for More Exorcists
As an advisor on the movie set, Father Thomas stated that the exorcism scenes contain behaviors that he himself has witnessed. “In Rome, going to see an exorcist has become commonplace, like going to see a dentist,” he said. Father Thomas explained that an increase in occult practices in Italy is believed to be responsible for increased demonic activity and the need for more trained exorcists.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., considers that the United States has a pressing need for more exorcists; the dozen or so exorcists in this country feel overburdened by calls from outside their diocese. He spearheaded a two-day closed-door conference on exorcism for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November, which more than 50 bishops and over 60 priests attended. “No statistics are kept as to how many exorcists we have,” he said, “but every diocese should really have its own resources.”
There is a specific rite of exorcism requiring permission from the bishop to perform. It consists of prayers by the priest, who commands the demon to come out and leave a person or place in peace. Not all exorcisms are dramatic, and some can be even mundane.
The exorcist usually works in union with another priest and/or with a deliverance team. According to Bishop Paprocki, the “deliverance” aspect is a modern addition, having grown up through charismatic prayer groups that focus on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He explained that during the 1960s and 1970s the devil’s work received less emphasis in the Church. The charismatic groups which formed during those decades, however, tended to focus more on deliverance of people from evil. Most exorcists today turn to such groups to be part of an exorcism and deliverance team, to pray for and with them. Another aspect to the team approach is the use of health-care professionals to screen for mental illness.
Msgr. John Esseff of the Diocese of Scranton, Pa., has been a priest for 57 years and an exorcist in his diocese for 40. According to him, proper screening is essential, because, more often than not, mental illness is the problem.
“Possessions are rare,” he said. “I’ve only seen two, but between possession and temptation, the devil can also oppress and obsess.”
These cases fall under the “deliverance” aspect of the ministry. “With oppression, a physical force comes against a person, such as throwing them to the ground like [what] happened with St. Padre Pio and St. John Vianney,” Msgr. Esseff explained. “Then there is obsession, where a person is attacked with thoughts or characteristics that keep coming back, but this could also be caused by mental illness.”
Father Patrick (not his real name) is an exorcist trained by Msgr. Esseff. He said that his team helps him to investigate cases and to pray over people. “Deliverance is a form of pastoral care,” he said. “With exorcism, the person can’t help themselves anymore. With deliverance, there are different levels of what they can do for themselves.”
He said he has handled cases ranging from trauma due to satanic ritual abuse to people who just need to make changes in their lifestyle.
Margarett Schlientz is on a deliverance team and often works with Msgr. Esseff. She has a master’s degree in spirituality from Creighton University and a doctorate in psychiatric nursing. Schlientz has worked with exorcists for the past 35 years, and for the last five years, she has coordinated an annual exorcism training and support meeting for bishops and priests.
She challenged the book on which the movie is based. “It’s missing good discernment of spirits,” she claimed. “The exorcist was seeing someone for nine years. They are either missing something or you have someone who does not really want to be delivered.”
Father Thomas responded to that criticism. “Nine years is an awful long time,” he agreed. “Father Carmine did not involve health professionals. The [exorcism] course called for it, but other than having people praying from a distance, he did not have outside support. He was concerned about protecting people’s privacy, so yes, as a result, he may have sacrificed discernment.”
Msgr. Esseff also cautioned that the sensationalism from books and movies could lead people to forget that the battle between good and evil is not between two equal forces.
“God will be the victor. Jesus is God, and through the power of Jesus, the devil is vanquished.”
He said that every priest’s greatest power to overcome evil is through the sacramental power of his priesthood. “A priest can hear confessions and forgive sins,” he said. “One confession is worth 100 exorcisms. The devil wants to destroy the soul, and the soul is healed by confession.”
Msgr. Esseff concludes, “If people want to decrease the work of Satan, they need to increase the use of confession.”
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from Bismarck, North Dakota.