Frequently asked questions about exorcism

| October 24, 2017 | 10 Comments
Exorcist

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the English translation of “Exorcisms and Related Supplications” in 2014. The Vatican approved the translation in spring 2017.

During the approval process the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the USCCB developed a series of frequently asked questions on exorcism. Because much of the public perception of the nature and application of exorcism is shaped by mass media, the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship approved basic questions and answers with the hope of providing clear information on the topic.

What follows is that online resource edited for brevity, clarity and style. The full set of questions and answers can be found at the USCCB website.

Q: What is an exorcism?

A: Exorcism is a specific form of prayer that the church uses against the power of the devil.

Q: What is the difference between an exorcism and the sacrament of penance?

A: Exorcism is a prayer that falls in the category of sacramentals, one of a number of sacred signs instituted by the church “to sanctify different circumstances of life” (“Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 351), thus varying from the seven sacraments of the church instituted by Christ. The sacrament of penance forgives sins and reconciles the faithful to the church, renewing baptism and bestowing grace to fight evil and grow in virtue. As a sacramental, exorcism prepares a person for the grace of the sacrament.

Q: Why does the church need exorcisms?

A: There are instances when a person needs to be protected against the power of the devil or to be withdrawn from the devil’s spiritual dominion. At such times, the church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus for this protection or liberation through the use of exorcism.

Exorcism

Jesus drives out a demon iStock/Ruskpp

Q: Is there a scriptural basis for exorcism?

A: While the basis for exorcism is grounded in the ministry of Jesus, there is no scriptural basis for a formal rite of exorcism apart from the use of the psalms and Gospel excerpt that were included in the rite of exorcism as it evolved.

What is clear, however, is that Jesus involved the disciples in his mission and through their commissioning continued the exorcistic work begun by Jesus himself (Matthew 10:8; Mark 3:14-15; 6:13; 16:17; Luke 9:1; 10:17). It was not a work they did in their own names, but in the name of Jesus, who had bestowed it upon them. Thus the ministry of exorcism continues in the life of the church as part of the regular pastoral care of souls.

Q: Are there different kinds of exorcisms?

A: There are two kinds, or forms, of exorcisms. Simple or minor forms are found in two places: first, for those preparing for baptism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and baptism for children both call for minor exorcisms; secondly, the appendix of “Exorcisms and Related Supplications” includes a series of prayers which may be used by the faithful.

The second is the solemn, or major exorcism, which is a rite that only can be performed by a bishop or priest, with the special and express permission of the local ordinary. This form is directed “at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation (of a person) from demonic possession.” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 1673)

Q: When and how is an afflicted member of the faithful referred to an exorcist?

A: It is advisable that every diocese establish a protocol to respond to inquiries from the someone who claims to be demonically afflicted. As part of the protocol, an assessment should occur to determine the true state of the person. Only after a thorough examination including medical, psychological, and psychiatric testing might a person be referred to the exorcist for a final determination regarding demonic possession. To be clear, the actual determination of whether a member of the faithful is genuinely possessed by the devil is made by the church, even if individuals claim to be possessed through their own self-diagnosis or psychosis.

Q: How frequently is a major exorcism performed?

A: The frequency of major exorcisms is determined by the credible need for the rite. That is why establishing a diocesan protocol is important. Through the centuries the church has moved cautiously when evaluating alleged cases of demonic possession. The reason for this is not to deny access to the rite for those who are in genuine need. However, the church is equally concerned that individuals not get caught up in a sensationalist mentality and thus create a kind of sideshow affair. Although rare, genuine cases of demonic possession should be addressed in a balanced manner with the utmost care being extended to the afflicted person.

Q: Who may perform the various kinds of exorcisms?

A: The minister of a minor exorcism is the designated authorized minister of the sacrament (RCIA or baptism for children) or blessing being celebrated. The prayers in Appendix II of the translation may be offered by any member of the clergy or the lay faithful. However, the Rite of Major Exorcism is to be celebrated only by a bishop or a priest who has obtained the special and express permission of the diocesan bishop.

Q: How does a priest become an exorcist?

A: A priest may be appointed to the office of exorcist either on a stable basis or for a particular occasion by the diocesan bishop. In either case, the exorcist should work closely with, and under the direction of, the bishop.

Q: Should other members of the faithful be present when an exorcism is performed?

A: This text strongly recommends against the exorcist working in isolation. Even though in rare instances this may be unavoidable, the practice of performing an exorcism in solitude should be discouraged at all costs.

Q: Where should an exorcism be performed?

A: The norm is to celebrate the rite of exorcism in an oratory or other appropriate place such as a small chapel discreetly hidden from plain view. It is to the advantage of the exorcist whenever possible to utilize a place that is dedicated to God’s honor and not the home of the afflicted person, for instance.

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  • Dominic Deus

    Dominic Deus here. Actually I found this rather interesting and not at all the ridiculousness I expected. The idea of a “sacramental” praying over an afflicted soul doesn’t strike me as much different from praying over an afflicted body. Surely we have all done that for our loved ones and quite possibly wit their consent either because they were not conscious enough to speak for themselves of because they had become possessed by addiction to alcohol, drugs or power. For my existential money, all three of those addictions, in their worst forms, qualify as straight out of Hell–which has to be pretty close to the definition of a demon.

    HOWEVER–given the extremely bad PR, described above, that has dogged the practice of exorcism, should we not, as thinking Catholics, as Catholic’s who do not want to give those who dislike us more ground for slander, satire and bad cinema insist on a name change? We changed the name of Extreme Unction fifty years ago because it had a terrible extreme name which was a nearly illiterate translation of a rather beautiful and loving phrase meaning “last anointing.”

    Exorcism was a “sacramental” (?) based largely on the observation of epileptic seizures which, of course, relented on their own, whether the victim was exorcised or not. That is not to say that caring protection and comfort were not of value. They were a virtuous reflection of human kindness, much preferable to the human desire to burn victims at the stake, a practice the Church supported but, fortunately, did not declare it a sacrament. If it had, it might have named it Exorcism.

    So I vote for a name change. Post your suggestions here.

    • Charles C.

      Dear Dominic,

      Do I understand that you want to keep everything about exorcism to stay the same, but by calling it something else we will fool the world into not mocking or condemning it?

      I’m not sure how frightened the devils will be when they learn we can’t even stand up to Hollywood.

      • Dominic Deus

        Dear Charles,

        I thought I composed a clever response last night and sent it off to you but now I think I deleted it, meaning I am not nearly as clever as I was thinking I was last night. Taking everything (that I can remember) into consideration, just assume I did respond in good humor and considering all the things actually going on in the world of devilry and evil, exorcism is not something I can bring myself to get worked up about right now except to say if it really works, I have some suggestions on possible candidates.

        Happy Halloween

        Dominic

        • Charles C.

          Nor do I get too worked up about it. This topic seems to be providing you with a fair amount of light-hearted inspiration, so it’s a shame I missed your post.

          For me, it’s a little like brain surgery in that it doesn’t affect too many people, it requires training to do it right, it’s always risky, but sometimes there is no other option if the individual is to survive.

          Devils? Yep, I believe in them. Angels and people are both created beings. People fell, some angels fell. If Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are individual beings, I don’t see why the fallen hosts aren’t.

          If the “good” angels were responsible for defeating all of the schemes of “evil” angels, then mankind would have no need to worry. The Garden of Eden would have had a happy ending (or no ending at all), and our sensationalist news sources would have trouble finding stories.

          God was able to cast out Satan from Heaven. It seems reasonable to me that one of the powers granted to Peter’s successors (and thence to priests) would be some degree of influence over the devils which afflict humanity.

          I don’t know the details of the theory, but I’m glad exorcism is available as a weapon against evil.

    • DebraBrunsberg

      No name change. People know what an exorcism is or they have an idea of what it is. In a society that fails to believe that the devil is something other than a myth (see Jesuits) the ones who do know about exorcisms are either those who can recognize evil and are grateful that we have priests that can assist in removing it or those who have only seen a movie, but are wary enough to want to stay away from most evils. However, I think you might want to rethink that Yoga stuff. 🙂

      • Dominic Deus

        DebraDude–nice to hear from you, especially on Halloween! You are for sure right on the error of failing to believe in evil. I tend not to think of the Devil as person because that makes it sound like Satan is a singular being and isn’t it Michael Archangel’s job to thrust him somewhere? Into Hell or perhaps an eternal traffic jam? Anyway, rather than think that Michael is asleep on the job, I prefer to believe that there is the seed of evil that exists in human nature and it would do no good for all of us to be thrust.

        It follows that there would be too many exorcisms for any priesthood to handle so we must “self-exorcise”, sort of like Mitt Romney wanted undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” back to whatever crime infested drug haven they escaped from.

        So, being the physician that I am, I recommend 20 minutes of exorcise five times per week, Mass on Sunday and if you want double coverage, go to Synagogue on Saturday.

        Amen, Shalom, and Boo!

        • DebraBrunsberg

          You forgot the one sure fire exorcism for the every day person, mostly plagued by little evils within ourselves……….confession. Once every two weeks should do it or for those who have more serious problems (or the scrupulous) once a week. However the enemy is ever vigilant and he loves those who deny his existence.

      • Dominic Deus

        On yoga-I am preparing a post for Jo.

  • Dominic Deus

    I replied to a post on the Catholic News Service which might interest you. the priest in the interview cautioned against letting in demons by practicing yoga. I felt compelled to speak. Next thing you know, there will be a teaching on Satanic Smoothies or Mark of the Beast Macchiatos. I expanded it a little for clarity. Here goes:

    Dominic Deus here. WOW have my eyes been opened!!! Read this from Fr. Gary Thomas:

    “Even yoga, used for purposes other than the purpose of exercise,” can be an open door to an evil spirit”he said.

    Since I have been practicing yoga at least once a day for almost fifty years, I now understand how all my demons got through the door in my head. Here are just a few them:

    The one that tells me to sit down, close my eyes and just breathe in and out for a bit. Start the new day by thinking about the people who love me and how blessed, how fortunate I am.

    Then there is the one who instructs me in how to move my aging body slowly, lovingly, and awaken the flesh that is the vessel which contains my soul in this earthly life. This is the body that aches, and is no longer quick and strong but has obeyed my every command in doing God’s work and also the utterly stupid things I have told I told it to do. I think of all those little and not so little pains as reminders of my foolishness and silly, petty sins.

    Then there is the one that summons my trusty dog to sit next to me when I do Downward Dog as said doggie demonstrates the correct way, the perfect way, to do it. After that he either puts his head in my lap or navigates around my legs in Pigeon or licks my face in Lion.

    We cannot forget the demon who tells me to meditate, in whatever fashion and on whatever subject or no subject at all. Good for the soul you know.

    The there is the demon who says “Lie down on your back, close your eyes and breath. Do not be afraid. This the way you will lie when you die. It’s good. Now when you awaken celebrate life and be kind to others.”

    Now, there are more demons that advise me in right conduct, sound diet, service to others, receiving the suffering of others and then letting it go. The list goes on.

    All this takes place right next to my bedside table where four rosaries reside and under which is my hand annotated Bible as well as the St. Andrews Missal I had at St. Joseph’s School. It contains Holy Cards and a cross that hung from a nun’s cincture underneath a wall mounted Crucifix on the same wall as a Marriage Prayer and just opposite from a framed House Prayer which has a blessed palm behind it. None of this includes my wife, JoAnn of Arc’s, side of the bed which is even more Catholic than mine. Outside the bedroom door is a Celtic cross and the entrance to the home is guarded by a Guardian Angel and the aforementioned dog.. oh, and we have eight children.

    Nothing in the bedroom ever exploded or caught fire while I was doing yoga.

    I suspect the demons are not demons at all but tiny fragments of wisdom and appreciation that some part of me has gathered up over the decades.

    If I were a Cardinal, I would be too old to vote but I have this small wisdom to share:

    If there are demons and if there is a rite of exorcism I am very happy. I would suggest that in looking for places where the rite is needed, start at the top, the top of anything, where people of power live to exercise it over the powerless whenever they can. Start with gun violence.

    As for yoga, it is India’s “gift to the world.” Give it a try.

    Namasté 🙂

    • Jo

      How wonderful the benefits you receive from one of the forms of Yoga! I, too, benefited from some of the positions and conscious breathing. However there was a time when I delved into “The Fourteen Lessons of a Yogi” because I wanted to understand more of Yoga than the phsyical.

      It was in the later lessons where I learned the more mystical aspects of Yogi Philosophy, of thoughts having energy and form, and how to travel on the astral plane. The more I read, the more curious I became and eventually I decided to experiment with some of these lessons.

      What I did not recognize at the time was that I was self-absorbed and wanting to have control over my circumstances. This grasping for control is certainly the opposite of emptying ourselves and giving control to God.

      Before I attempted ‘astral projection’, I fortunately had the gift of faith to pray before I began. I asked for protection. As I started the practice, I could ‘see’ with my mind’s eye that I was sinking down through my mattress. Then I was seeing the springs in the box spring. I immediately cried out in thought, “Jesus! Help! I am going the wrong way!” My body bounced, and I was fully alert and on the top of my bed again. I thanked God and never attempted any of the ‘lessons’ again.

      True, there is not a little devilish behind every rock and we can annoy me ray out as Flip Wilson’s character, “The devil made me do it!”, and necpver take responsibility for our choices. But there is a reason why the Church has this ministry. And we need only to read the Gospel accounts and the book of the Acts of the Apostles to see the exorcism of evil.