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Exorcism - Ancient ministry attracts new practitioners

NCR Staff

At 73, Rome’s Fr. Gabriele Amorth, bald and with a face whose deep crevices suggest wisdom, looks a bit like Yoda, the diminutive sage who trained Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight in the popular “Star Wars” trilogy. Amorth, too, is keeper of an ancient craft in a cosmic battle against evil.

Amorth’s apprentices, however, wield prayer books and holy water rather than light sabers. “Don Gabriele,” as the priest is known in Rome, is the official exorcist for the pope’s diocese, and the leading apostle for what he and others say is a revival in the practice of exorcism in the Western church.

The resurgence was evident at a weeklong mid-July conference in Rome of the International Association of Exorcists, a group Amorth cofounded in 1993. Their first meeting seven years ago brought together just six Catholic exorcists. This summer more than 200 exorcists and their lay assistants showed up from all parts of the globe.

“When I started this work, I could name most of the other official exorcists in the Western church on my hands,” said Fr. Rufus Perea, a priest and exorcist of the Bombay, India, archdiocese who travels the globe healing and praying over people for deliverance from demons. “Now there are hundreds of us.”

The conference was off-limits to journalists, but several participants agreed to sit down afterward with NCR. The conversations provided a rare glimpse under this corner of the church’s big tent.

The practice of exorcism reaches deep into Catholic tradition. The word comes from a Greek term meaning “to pray or ask deeply,” and originally it had nothing to do with expelling demons. Jesus himself is “exorcised” twice in the New Testament, once by the high priest (Matthew 26:63) and once by the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-40). Both urge him to do something using the Greek word exorkizo. In the early Christian church, however, this term came to mean the practice of casting out evil spirits. The practice has waxed and waned throughout Christian history. (See accompanying stories, “A bit of exorcist history” and “Revised rite.”)

Polls show that surprising numbers of people remain open to the practice. A 1999 Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey concluded that almost 50 percent of Americans believe people are sometimes inhabited by the devil.

Fr. James Moroney, chief liturgist for the U.S. bishops’ conference, told NCR it is impossible to verify whether there has been growth in the number of exorcists in the United States, since the church does not track how many exorcists local bishops appoint.

Team handled 25 cases last year

The most renowned American exorcist, Fr. James LaBar of the New York archdiocese, believes the movement is gathering steam. LaBar, appointed by the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, is part of a five-person team from that archdiocese that travels the country responding to exorcism requests. The group handled more than 25 cases last year.

“People know Cardinal O’Connor has exorcists, and so they call and we go,” LaBar said on a 1999 radio program. LaBar, who was unavailable for comment for this article, first came to prominence in 1991, when he took part in a Palm Beach, Fla., exorcism that was videotaped and later broadcast on ABC’s “20/20.”

LaBar said last year that his caseload is heavy in part because so few other American bishops have named exorcists. “Today if there are a half-dozen dioceses that have an officially appointed exorcist that would be a lot,” he said. “There’s a growing demand, and we don’t have the manpower to meet it.”

Rome’s Amorth told NCR that when he began working as an exorcist in 1986, there were fewer than 20 official exorcists in Italy. Now, he said, there are more than 300 in the country.

Fueling the growth, observers here said, are two broad trends. The first is a rebirth of traditional forms of belief and devotion within Catholicism inspired by John Paul’s papacy. The other is the Catholic charismatic movement.

Perea, whose background is in the charismatic movement, told NCR that the two impulses generally reinforce each other, but there are tensions.

The first meeting of exorcists in 1990, he said, was composed almost entirely of traditional exorcists wary of lay collaboration. “They didn’t want to hear about any lay people practicing the ministry of deliverance,” he said, “especially enthusiasts coming out of the charismatic renewal.”

Perea pushed for expanded lay involvement and for a détente between the traditional exorcists and the charismatics. Today he heads a companion association, in partnership with the exorcists’ group, for priests and lay people who lack an official commission from a bishop but who nevertheless offer informal prayers for deliverance.

Such practices cause some uneasiness in official circles. A 1985 letter to bishops from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specifies, that certain functions that are part of the exorcism rite are restristricted to priests. Those include ordering the demon out or inquiring about its identity.

Topics under discussion at the exorcists’ meeting in Rome would have surprised, possibly even disturbed, Catholics who learn about church affairs largely from Sunday homilies or mainstream journals.

Hot debate, for example, surrounded the question of whether the souls of people who die in mortal sin are capable of possessing the living. Attendees were also interested in questions of technique, something Amorth covered extensively in his 1990 book An Exorcist Tells His Story. There he describes forcing demons to allow people to vomit up objects such as locks of hair and wooden dolls (the results of sorcery), and writes that sometimes one can detect the presence of a demon in people by secretly preparing their food using holy water and watching their reaction.

Such notions obviously strain credulity in many quarters, but Amorth, feisty and razor-sharp, makes no apologies: “The unbelieving Catholic world may laugh at my assertions,” he said, but he knows what he’s seen.

An unbroken tradition

Fr. Gregory Planchak, a priest of the Greek Catholic rite in the Ukraine, said that Eastern Christianity in both its Orthodox and Catholic forms has an unbroken tradition of exorcism. “We never stopped, unlike the church in the West, which virtually abandoned the practice 200 years ago,” he said. Planchak joked that skepticism is largely restricted to “some priests who finished their theology in Rome.”

Planchak said Western theologians have a harder time with demonic phenomena than the Eastern Orthodox theologians do. “Eastern theology comes from spiritual experience, including the visions of saints. It is mystical theology, so it’s easier to account for this sort of thing,” he said.

Such assertions were strongly rejected by Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, vice-rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and a frequent adviser to the Vatican on Eastern churches. “That’s nonsense,” Taft said bluntly. “It’s part of this Eastern rap that they have preserved what the West has lost.” Taft argues that in educated circles in both East and West the use of exorcism went into decline in the last 200 years, while in areas where popular religious belief remains strong, so too does exorcism.

“There are places in Greece where they use the ritual for the anointing of the sick if they see a snake in the house,” Taft said. He referred to the connection in Mediterranean folklore between snakes and the demons that cause illness. “But it happens in the West, too. It’s just not true to say that it died out.”

Like most of his exorcist colleagues, Perea said that it was a spiritual experience, rather than intellectual conviction, that led him into this work. In 1976, two women came to him complaining of possession, and he began to pray for them.

“One of the two women, a very religious person who always had a rosary in her hand, was flung to the ground,” Perea said. “The evil one began to speak, I could see the eyes full of hatred. This woman wanted to jump at me to catch my throat, asking me why have you come here, telling me to go back to Bombay. I began to pray in tongues. Suddenly her face changed, it became an angelic face. Her hands, which had been like claws wanting to hurt me, were now raised in praise.”

Planchak said witnessing such an exorcism can cure theological skepticism. “Once you have seen it with your own eyes, you will never be the same,” he said.

Exorcists are aware that many people wonder if mental illness, or even fakery, is the real cause of possession.

Fr. Perea of Bombay, said that when a suffering person is presented, he simply begins to pray. “I have no time to make this distinction,” he said. Planchak said that if he harbors, he would proceed if his fellow priests and people concur that it is a genuine case of possession or oppression.

Like any other professional group, the exorcists have their own running debates. One turns on whether spiritual beings other than demons can hijack souls. Planchak thinks so.

“Once a girl came to me for confession, but during confession it started to get bad, and I began to pray over her,” he said. “There was a manifestation of a spirit, so I started the prayer of exorcism.

“I asked the demon what its name was, and he replied, ‘Viktor.’ It was the first time I had heard anything like this, so I asked him, who are you? With difficulty he began talking about himself. He said he had been married to another woman during his life, but he loved this girl too much, and eventually the girl and Viktor slept together. After that she rejected him, and he was suffering. Finally, he killed himself and then entered the girl. He asked me not to put him out, saying, ‘I love her, and she is mine.’ Then I prayed for maybe 10 minutes, and he was gone.”

All possession by demons

Amorth rejects such conjecture. He insists that all possession is done by demons, and that in such cases as “Viktor,” this is simply a demon lying about its identity.

Exorcists also differ on how long it takes to liberate someone. Perea says it is usually a matter of minutes, though he grants that the most difficult cases can take longer. Amorth, however, warns against a quick fix. “I am very content when a case of only medium gravity is dealt with after four or five years of coming once a week,” he said.

Despite the conceptual gulf that sometimes separates exorcists from other constituencies in the church, there is at least one point of common ground: occasional frustration with bishops perceived as unsupportive.

“Jesus gave a very precise mandate to the apostles: preach the gospel, cast out demons and heal the sick. Every bishop has the responsibility to do these three things,” Amorth said. “If they don’t do it, they betray the gospel.”

“I am glad I am not a confessor to bishops,” Amorth said defiantly, “because I would absolve very few of them … I say to the bishops: You are the successors to the apostles, but you are not their followers.”

Amorth has also blamed Western theologians for a decline in exorcism. Yet several leading American Catholic theologians told NCR they take the idea seriously.

“I think we too easily ‘demonize’ persons and actions,” said Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale, former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. “Still, I do think that forces of evil -- both external, that is, societal, and internal -- are real in our experience.”

“There is such a growing awareness of the spiritual among ordinary folk, belief in angels, miracles and so on, that believing that evil can be incarnated or possess someone is not wholly unthinkable,” said Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, seemed to sum up the dominant reaction. “I am not into exorcisms or evil spirits,” he said, “but I also recall Shakespeare: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000