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A bit of exorcist history

NCR Staff

The first mention of “exorcist” as an office in the church comes in a letter of Pope Cornelius in 253. In early medieval liturgies, according to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, three kinds of exorcisms were common: exorcism of objects (such as houses), of candidates for baptism and of people believed possessed by demons. In many parts of Europe, medieval rites of exorcism included not only a renunciation of the devil but also of pre-Christian deities such as Thor and Wotan.

The office of exorcist continued as a “minor order,” a step on the road to priesthood, until 1972 when Paul VI suppressed these orders. Canon law once specified that each diocesan bishop must designate an exorcist, but with the revision of the code in 1983 that requirement was dropped. As a practical matter, most observers say, the use of exorcism declined sharply under the impact of the Enlightenment, Western rationalism, and advances in the science of mental health.

With the Catholic charismatic renewal in the late 1960s, however, belief in spirits, miracles, healings and exorcism began to make a comeback in mainstream Christian churches, including Roman Catholicism. The charismatic renewal seeks to invigorate the “charisms” or “gifts of the Spirit” mentioned in the New Testament such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues. Some charismatic groups also stress deliverance from evil spirits.

Evil spirits and possession remain firmly entrenched in official Catholic doctrine. In January 1999, the Vatican issued a new ritual for exorcism, the first update since 1614. Pope John Paul II himself has performed at least one exorcism, on an Italian woman named Francesca Fabrizzi in 1982, and the pope has publicly referred to the devil as a “cosmic liar and murderer.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000