Exorcism: It’s on the big screen, but is it still in the church?

| September 21, 2010 | 12 Comments

Angel on blue skyHeads spinning. Pea-soup vomit. Circus-like bodily distortions.

Hollywood has certainly offered its take on the rite of exorcism, which the church uses to free a person from demonic possession. “The Last Exorcism,” which opened in theaters Aug. 27, is no exception. In the film, a doubting charismatic Protestant pastor sets out to debunk exorcism, but instead he encounters the real presence of evil.

Exorcism isn’t only gaining attention on the big screen. In August, the Omaha-based Institute for Priestly Formation offered a four-day conference on exorcism at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Several archdiocesan priests attended the conference.

So, what does the church teach about exorcism and evil in general?  Are demons real, or are they products of mental illness? What should someone do if they suspect an evil spirit is affecting his or her life?

In order to address some of the most common questions people have about exorcism, The Catholic Spirit interviewed three priests of the archdiocese who have studied the matter: Father Mark Dosh, pastor of St. John the Baptist in Excelsior; Father Michael Skluzacek, pastor of St. John the Baptist in New Brighton; and Father Jon Vander Ploeg, pastor of St. Paul in Ham Lake. They explained the rite, its use and why it gets so much popular attention.

Q What does the church teach about evil and the devil?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the devil, or Satan, is a person — an actual being, not just an idea or a symbol. Scripture and tradition hold that he was an angel — a servant and messenger of God — who turned against the Creator and thus “fell” from heaven. Other angels rejected God and fell with him. The church calls these fallen angels “demons.”

The Gospels describe Jesus driving demons from people with his own authority, and the church has done the same throughout the centuries, Father Dosh said.

When it comes to the devil, there are two extremes people must avoid, Father Skluzacek said.

“One of them is to think that he doesn’t exist,” he said. “The other extreme is just to become so obsessed with demons that we think there’s a devil under every rock.”

Q Why do you think our culture is interested in exorcism and evil?

“God has given us a deep yearning for himself, so we’re always yearning for something that transcends us, something that is outside of us,” Father Dosh said. When people don’t look to God, they’ll try to fulfill this desire somewhere else — such as idolizing celebrities or a system of government, he said. Others look to the occult.

Q What is exorcism? Is the rite still used in the church today?

Exorcism is driving out demonic possession by the authority of the church — and yes, it’s still used today in very rare circumstances, Father Skluzacek said.

“On occasions, demons have succeeded in inhabiting people; it’s as simple as that,” Father Dosh added. “That inhabitation, of course, is described as directing their mobility and activities, so [their actions are] not under the will of the person — it’s as if another is acting in him or her.”

Exorcism is a sacramental — a sacred sign that prepares and disposes people to the reception of grace through the seven sacraments.

Q Who does exorcisms?

A priest can only perform an exorcism with the permission of his bishop. Some dioceses and archdioceses have appointed exorcists; the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis does not. Any need for the rite here would be handled on a case-by-case basis, Father Dosh said.

Q Who undergoes exorcism?

Only people determined to be possessed by priests experienced in the matter undergo exorcism, and most people who think they may be possessed are probably not, Father Skluzacek said. Instead, they may be experiencing a lesser form of demonic interference which does not require exorcism, such as demonic “harassment” or demonic “oppression,” which is also called “obsession.”

Q How are other cases of demonic harm handled?

The church handles those situations through the normal sacraments and prayers of the church, Father Skluzacek said. In some cases, a priest may also pray a prayer of deliverance over the person.

However, frequent reception of the sacraments is vital to overcoming demonic interference, Father Skluzacek said. “What is so important to remember is that the sacrament of reconciliation, for example, is much more powerful than an exorcism,” he added.

Q How does an exorcist distinguish between demonic interference and mental illness?

One of exorcism’s greatest criticisms is that those who undergo the rite actually need a doctor, not a priest. Yet, there’s a difference between mental illness and possession, Father Vander Ploeg said. In some cases, however, both are present. Priests often consult with psychologists in determining what the afflicted person needs. Sometimes it’s the psychologist who contacts a priest when he or she thinks a person’s problem is beyond the purview of science, Father Dosh said.

There are signs of supernatural phenomena [that distinguishes possession from mental illness], Father Skluzacek said, like the ability to speak in foreign languages of which the person would have no knowledge.

Q How do movie portrayals of exorcism compare to the real thing?

Movies like “The Exorcist” (1973) or “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”(2005) make exorcism look like a one-time deal, but people could undergo exorcisms for years before the demon is driven from them. Exorcisms don’t always look dramatic, but possessed people could act with unusual strength, vomit, or be used by a demon to speak.

“It depends what you’re dealing with,” Father Vander Ploeg said. “Demons are fallen angels, so a lot depends on what type of angel you’re dealing with that fell.”

The church’s tradition describes a hierarchy of angels, and demons have a similar hierarchy, Father Skluzacek said.

Another difference between movies and actual exorcisms is that good always triumphs in the end, Father Vander Ploeg said.

“Christ conquers Satan and demons on Calvary,” Father Dosh added. “All the rest is mopping up operations, including exorcism.”

Q Why don’t Catholics hear about this anywhere outside the cinema/popular culture?

Priests haven’t done as good of a job as they should have to explain this in recent years, Father Skluzacek said.

“My own seminary training is not very good in this area,” he said.

“So, it’s an area where we need to do a better job, and I think we are. There are lots of signs that there’s more training for priests and for people in the church to learn about this.”

Priests also don’t want to needlessly alarm parishioners, or attract unwanted attention.

“I think that [Catholics] should be aware that there are things out there, but I don’t think that they should get overly fascinated by it,” Father Vander Ploeg said. “By its nature, too much focus on it distorts the truth and the reality. God is more powerful than the demonic, and our fascination with it often gives the demonic more power than it actually has.

Those concerned about these matters should speak to their pastor or a priest, the priests said.

Q Why does the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults contain “exorcism” as part of candidates’ and catechumens’ preparation? Does it have anything to do with this?

“There are really instances of minor exorcisms that are very common, and most people don’t even realize that they are exorcisms,” Father Skluzacek said.

One is baptism.

“Before a baby is baptized, there’s a simple minor exorcism, where the priest or deacon prays a prayer to cast out the power of evil from the person, and then the person is anointed with the oil of catechumens,” he said. “That is a minor exorcism.”The same rite is included in RCIA in the scrutinies before baptism, he said.

“So those are bona fide exorcisms. They’re not the Hollywood style, but they’re real exorcisms,” he said.

Read more

Father Michael Skluzacek suggested the following books for further reading:

» Catechism of the Catholic Church.

» “Angels and their Mission” by Jean Danielou.

» “Catholics and the New Age” by Father Mitch Pacwa.

» “Exorcism: Understanding Exorcism in Scripture and Practice” by Father Jeremy Davies.

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  • Charles

    Thank's Maria, for the article on exorcism. I thought it was informative and well done. I would add as an observation that there needs to be a great deal more exorcising in western culture. We've become so materialistic that we don't really see clearly anymore, can't read between the lines in our culture. Example; abortion, contraception, the general culture of death. What is primarily needed is the practise of purity in our own Catholic lives. That would include mine first of all, I should say. It's a very serious matter too. Just look around at the symptoms of decay. It's not just economic. I really think we've gone past the point where anything but major surgery will revive the patient, or should I say, remnant. Thank you.

  • Sandra Bater

    A good non-sensational article Maria. Charles mentions abortion, contraception, and general culture of death. He forgot to mention sexual activities, drugs and New Age religion – or maybe he was just being polite.

    I have no doubt that the devil exists being at the receiving end of his nasty tricks.

  • Sam

    Important information. One subject I would like to see the Church address more often is not demonic possession, which is rarer, but demonic oppression. I went through two years of demonic oppression, and thankfully I understood what it was otherwise I would have gone insane. I am a Catholic who underwent a series on unexplainable, "unusual" bouts of adversity and attack. I was fortunate enough to finally find a wonderful, knowledgable priest who understood what was happening to me and prayed over me and helped me with sacramentals and the tools to abolish this attack. I was able to put a stronghold of protection around me and I have been protected and blessed.

  • Sam

    Be very careful about understanding what may be natural trials and tribulations of life, and what is an attack. I always tell people it's important to discern if you think you are under demonic attack or oppression. The first thing is to analyze if the "attacks" are just problems that may be a result of choices in your life, etc. Most of the time demonic attacks seem slightly "bizarre" or out of the ordinary, involved odd accidents or many times, extreme family rifts and fights that come out of the blue, without cause. You may also experience many losses in succession.

    If you think you are experiencing an attack, try to find an knowledgable priest, attend mass regularly, pray to St. Michael, the Blessed Mother, Padre Pio and St. Gemma – all great intercessors for protection. Take communion and used blessed water and salt, sacramentally not superstitiously. Pray the Psalms. Stay away from any type of occult activity which includes going to psychics, mediums, or even something as simple as using tarot cards. Remember, Christ won this battle for us, however we must wear our armor as we walk through this life.

  • Joseph

    Displaying belief in evil spirits is damaging to the ego – hence nobody is prepared to talk about it.

  • Cradle Catholic

    The article is well-written. It's sensible to realize Satan & other fallen angels are real, & good that neither the article, nor the comments below, give more power to a demon than warranted.

    I'm glad the archdiocese of St. Paul, Minneapolis does NOT have an authorized exorcist, & instead, handles cases on an individual basis, as needed.

  • Cradle Catholic

    A book published two years ago, "The Rite", written about a priest that took a Vatican class in Exorcism will soon be a movie. I thought the book would be scary. But wanting to know how exorcism classes were taught by the Vatican, a friend convinced me read it. I read it, carefully & gingerly.

    While the history of exorcism was well covered, the story about how the priest learned to be a "designated exorcist" for his own diocese, was silly. It makes the Vatican look bad – teaching a course IN ITALIAN to non-Italian speaking priests. Would we want our auto mechanics taught to fix our cars in a language they don't speak?

    Most importantly, the book gives more power to supposed "demons" than to the Holy Spirit. For anyone familiar with exorcism in the Bible, The Rite is nothing like it. I'm glad this article takes a wiser approach.

  • Cradle Catholic

    There were outrageous claims from some of the peripheral characters in The Rite, and affter having noticed one of the priests name's wasn't even REAL – yet the book is non-fiiction, it made the story-line even more doubtful. I laughed through much of The Rite … while the main character seems sincere.

    The devil is real. So I'm glad the writer of THIS article, the 4 priests in the Archdiocese of SP/M & the leader of the archdiocese approaches exorcism wisely, not falling into the trap that is "The Rite".

    He who is in us (Holy Spirit) is stronger than he that is in the world! Yes, put on the armour Ephesians 6!

  • phil

    I like the line "Priests also don't want to needlessly alarm parishioners…" That's the problem: people no longer want to think about the devil and Hell. When an assistant priest brought this up a year ago from my parish pulpit, the "faithful" complained to the pastor it was ancient, outdated teaching. They were content to live in a world where the devil was an imaginary character. Yes, just keep on laughing through "The Rite."

  • Brent J Christen

    The Devil's greatest weapon is our disbelief in his existance.

  • Cradle Catholic

    Phil, the devil is absolutely REAL. I did not say I laughed at the devil, or that I did not believe in the devil. Priests SHOULD preach and teach about the devil and about Hell. By all means.

    But read "The Rite" for yourself & see 1) how the main character in the book, seems like a very sincere person, but he has NO discernment skills; his "mentor" lied to him, right off the bat yet he still called him
    "a holy man" and 2) notice the outlandish claims of the priest that didn't even give his real name.

    The devil is REAL. The book "The Rite" is hogwash. Priests would be better served by reading the Word of God (the Bible) and being able to teach and preach it.