U.S. Exorcist-Trained Priests Overwhelmed With Requests
FOR CATHOLICS, INTEREST IN EXORCISM IS REVIVED
U.S. Exorcist-Trained Priests Overwhelmed With RequestsNov 16
FOR CATHOLICS, INTEREST IN EXORCISM IS REVIVED
By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
November 12, 2010
The rite of exorcism, rendered gory by Hollywood and ridiculed by many modern believers, has largely fallen out of favor in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.
There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.
Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.
“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.
“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”
The closed-door conference is being held in Baltimore before the annual fall meeting of the nation’s bishops. Some Catholic commentators said they were puzzled why the bishops would bother with exorcisms in a year when they are facing a full plate of crises — from parish and school closings, to polls showing the loss of one of every three white baptized members, to the sexual abuse scandal flaring up again.
But to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, the bishops’ timing makes perfect sense.
“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.
“It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”
Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized a return to traditional rituals and practices, and some observers said the bishops’ interest in exorcism was consistent with the direction set by the pope.
Exorcism is as old as Christianity itself. The New Testament has accounts of Jesus casting out demons, and it is cited in the Catholic Church’s catechism. But it is now far more popular in Europe, Africa and Latin America than in the United States.
Most exorcisms are not as dramatic as the bloody scenes in films. The ritual is based on a prayer in which the priest invokes the name of Jesus. The priest also uses holy water and a cross, and can alter the prayer depending on the reaction he gets from the possessed person, said Matt Baglio, a journalist in Rome who wrote the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (Doubleday, 2009).
“The prayer comes from the power of Jesus’ name and the church. It doesn’t come from the power of the exorcist. The priest doesn’t have the magic power,” said Mr. Baglio, whose book has been made into a movie to be released in January, starring Anthony Hopkins.
There is plenty of cynicism among American Catholics — even among priests — about exorcism. Mr. Baglio noted that there are hucksters who prey on vulnerable believers, causing them physical or spiritual harm. As a result, he thought it was helpful that the church is making an effort to train more priests to perform the rite legitimately.
With so few priests who perform exorcisms, and the stigma around it, exorcists are not eager to be identified. Efforts to interview them on Friday were unsuccessful.
Bishop Paprocki said he was surprised at the turnout for the conference: 66 priests and 56 bishops. The goal is for each diocese to have someone who can at least screen requests for exorcisms.
Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.
A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614.
The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, an organization for American priests, said that when he first heard about the conference on exorcism, “My immediate reaction was to say, why?”
He said that he had not heard of any requests for exorcisms and that the topic had not come up in the notes of meetings from councils of priests in various dioceses.
The conference on exorcism comes at a time, he said, when the church is bringing back traditional practices. The Vatican has authorized the revival of the Latin Mass, and now a revised English translation of the liturgy, said to be closer to a direct translation from the Latin, is to be put in use in American parishes next year.
“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”
But he said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.
Bishop Paprocki noted that according to Catholic belief, the Devil is a real and constant force who can intervene in people’s lives — though few of them will require an exorcism to handle it.
“The ordinary work of the Devil is temptation,” he said, “and the ordinary response is a good spiritual life, observing the sacraments and praying. The Devil doesn’t normally possess someone who is leading a good spiritual life.”