A crucifix and holy water are among the religious items used in the Rite of Exorcism. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec
A crucifix and holy water are among the religious items used in the Rite of Exorcism. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

It seems to go in cycles, but recently I have been asked questions about “exorcisms” – no doubt, because of current films dealing with demonic possession like, “The Pope’s Exorcist,” (which I saw) and, “Nefarious,” (which I have not seen) – and the possibility of performing this ritual for people who believe they “might be possessed by the devil or demonic spirits.” I did some research into the topic and here is what I found:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

1673When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing.  In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness (395, 550, 1237).

Despite their popular portrayal in films and novels, exorcisms in the ecclesiastical sense are not as common as we are led to believe, although there was a resurgence of interest in exorcisms in the 1980s and 1990s. There are strict criteria that must be followed when demonic spirits are discerned and an ecclesiastical exorcism is deemed necessary.

The Catholic Church is very careful to distinguish between cases of true demonic possession and occasions of psychological disturbance or difficulty. For that reason, the Catholic Church requires that the person(s) claiming to be “possessed” must submit to a full psychological evaluation before the rite may proceed.

The Catholic Church’s ritual for performing an exorcism dates back to the early 17th century (1614).  It consisted of prescribed prayer formulas and blessings formulated for duly appointed priests to expel demons. Exorcisms are not sacraments but, rather “sacramentals.”

On January 26, 1999, The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship – with the approval of then Pope John Paul II – published a new ritual for performing exorcisms, De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (“Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications”). The prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship at that time, Cardinal Jorge Medina, wrote:

The new text is an outgrowth of the old. There are no substantial changes or break with the previous text. There are changes in language: the new text has more sober language, with fewer adjectives. Moreover, it gives the priest who practices the rite of exorcism greater liberty – greater flexibility in the choice of prayers to use. In a word, there is a new style, in a language more adapted to our time, but the content is the same.

The Vatican has “urged those performing exorcisms to take pains to distinguish between possessed people and others suffering from forms of mental or psychological illness,” encouraging priests and bishops “to seek professional medical assistance in cases where the true nature of what seems to be diabolical possession is in doubt (John Tagliabue, “Vatican’s Revised Exorcism Rite Affirms the Existence of the Devil,” New York Times, Jan. 27, 1999). That is not to say, however, that possession by the devil or demonic spirits does not happen or is not possible.

Rather than debate the authenticity of various cases of alleged “demonic possession” or various exorcisms that have alleged to have been performed, here is what we know:

  1. The devil exists. Evil exists. Possession by the devil exists as real and possible. The Sacred Scriptures, the Church’s tradition and history affirm all these statements as true and offer experiential accounts to substantiate their veracity (Cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 391-395).

  2. Of those cases of demonic possession authenticated by the Catholic Church, these are some of the common signs or symptoms often attributed to such possession and reported by various sources: violent reactions toward religion or religious symbols, sacramentals and sacraments; alteration of an individual’s normal personality; supernatural strength beyond what would be ordinarily possible for an individual’s size or age; changes to an individual’s voice or vocal patterns and the ability to speak true languages never known or learned by the individual; loss of appetite; abnormal bodily postures; attacks by the individual on his own body such as biting or scratching and cutting; attacks on others, etc. When present, these symptoms have no explainable reason for their occurrence. They may, however, be psychological or physiological in nature. Again, one must carefully distinguish between psychological or other medically related disturbance and true demonic possession. For that, professional medical and psychological assistance is required. Ongoing counseling is also recommended.

  3. The Rite of Exorcism (1999) may be used in instances where true demonic possession is deemed credible. Ecclesiastical exorcisms may only be performed by a validly ordained priest in good standing who has first obtained the permission of the diocesan bishop before proceeding.  Anyone, however, can pray for freedom from evil and the power of the devil.

In some archdioceses and dioceses, the bishop appoints a “diocesan exorcist.”  That is not the case in the Diocese of Trenton. I have not appointed a priest to that position. In cases or circumstances where an individual suspects he/she is possessed by the devil and requests an exorcism, I ask that the following approach be followed:

  1. The person alleged to be possessed (or the person’s legitimate guardian) should speak to his/her pastor or parish priest, giving a full report of the situation concerned.
  2. The pastor or parish priest then should visit the person alleged to be possessed.

  3. The person alleged to be possessed should submit to a full medical and psychiatric/psychological evaluation to determine that there are no medical or psychological reasons to explain behaviors.

  4. The pastor or parish priest should prepare a full report, including the medical and psychological evaluation, and send it to me; after reading this report, I will consult with the pastor or parish priest to determine if an exorcism is warranted, and I will appoint a priest to conduct the ritual.

  5. All parties concerned should be encouraged to pray for the individual alleged to be possessed and that all of us will be “delivered from evil.”

I believe in the existence of the devil and truly fear his influence and power. I encourage all people to pray and to be vigilant at all times, avoiding any pastimes that flirt with the devil or otherwise satanic activities. At the same time, however, and without doubting its necessity on occasion, I consider exorcism a ritual that is more the exception than the rule in our experience. May God our Father “deliver us from evil.”