Heads 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.
Father Michael Skluzacek suggested the following books for further reading: