My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In our so-called sophisticated society, the world may scoff and tell you there is no Devil. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has cautioned, “This generation, and many others, have been led to believe that the Devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil. But the Devil exists and we must fight against him.”
The existence of spiritual beings we call angels is a truth of our faith (CCC 328). The Church teaches that Satan and the other demons were at first good angels, created by God before the creation of the human race. But they became evil by their own free choice, radically rejecting God and His reign. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, states, “The whole of human history is pervaded by an arduous struggle against the powers of darkness, which began at the very origin of the world and will continue until the last day” (GS 37).
The experience of temptation is a daily reality for all human beings. Our lives are burdened with an interior struggle. We want to do good, but we carry a tendency towards evil that weighs us down. Some persons are tempted frequently and intensely, while others are tempted less and without being deeply agitated. To help us resist these temptations, the Church gives us, as ordinary means, the weapons of prayer, especially the Rosary, and the Sacraments. The late Father Gabriele Amorth, former Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome and founder of the International Association of Exorcists, consistently stressed that the number one protection from evil is the Sacrament of Confession and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Some people, however, face a deeper level of spiritual harassment that is sometimes called diabolical oppression or obsession. The person may be attacked physically, mentally, and/or emotionally making it very difficult to pray. They may even experience an intense aversion to sacred things such that reception of the Sacraments becomes difficult if not impossible. Such experiences mean that the person is not totally free. The person may be substantially burdened and in the grip of forces over which they have little or no control. In the most extreme cases, the person’s will may be so weakened and the extent of the demonic influence so great, that the person can at times become under the almost complete control of the evil spirit, a condition that is called possession. Possession is rare, but is a real consequence of the activity of evil spirits. In these cases, the intervention of the Church is necessary to help free the person from the demonic influence. First recourse should always be to one’s parish, but if the scope of the problem is beyond what the parish priest can handle, a referral may be made to the Chancellor’s Office of the diocese. Last year, more than 30 people came to the diocese seeking spiritual help, one of whom was judged to be possessed.
While the Church takes these cases very seriously, it also operates very cautiously, skeptically, and deliberately in this area. Any possible natural cause or explanation, like mental illness, for the symptoms the afflicted person is experiencing or exhibiting must be investigated before a supernatural source is suspected.
The process begins with a comprehensive interview regarding the afflicted person’s personal, medical, mental, religious, and family history. The person is also asked about the current issues with which that person is dealing that might suggest some level of demonic attack. Evil spirits can get a foothold through traumatic events in a person’s life such as physical, mental, or sexual abuse or exposure to violent death. Often serious sin can be an entry point. Sometimes people can fall into sin without realizing it, such as “fooling around” with a Ouija board, or visiting a psychic for Palm or Tarot Card readings, or participating in non-Christian activities like Wicca. Even certain new age forms of Reiki or Yoga can inadvertently create an opportunity for evil spirits to enter. It should go without saying that all forms of black magic, voodoo, witchcraft, Satanism, and Devil worship are particularly harmful to one’s soul.
Once it has been determined that the problem is predominantly spiritual in nature, the Church can use the power received from Christ through the Apostles of casting out demons and warding off their influence. “When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively, in the name of Jesus Christ, that a person or object be protected against the influence of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called Exorcism” (CCC 1673). There are several exorcisms in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It is also part of the Rite of Baptism of Infants. “These exorcisms remind us the Church’s awareness of the presence and power of the Evil One and that the Christian life is a spiritual struggle from its very inception” (Manual of Minor Exorcisms). These prayers are called prayers of minor exorcism and can be a standard part in the ministry of priests in assisting people in the spiritual struggle, including those who are judged to be suffering from demonic oppression or obsession.
For cases of possession, the Church may resort to the solemn Rite of Major Exorcism. This liturgical action may only be exercised by a Priest appointed by the Bishop who has the necessary piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life who has been specifically prepared for this office (Exorcisms and Related Supplications 13). Before permission is sought from the Bishop to utilize the solemn Major Rite, the Exorcist must ascertain, with moral certitude, that the one to be exorcised is really possessed by a demon (Exorcisms and Related Supplications 16). To help achieve this, our diocesan protocol requires complete physical, neurological, and psychological examination of the afflicted person. Once moral certitude is ascertained, a petition is made to the Bishop to seek his permission to use the solemn Rite of Major Exorcism. If it is granted, a team is assembled which includes at least one, and preferably two or three, Priest Exorcists along with prayer supporters, restrainers, a medical assistant, a note taker, and, if possible, a linguist. Very often the solemn Major Rite needs to be repeated several times before all the demons are expelled and the afflicted person can be reintegrated into a faith community for aftercare and support.
We must always remember that the Church firmly believes that there is only one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, and who watches over all things He has created (Exorcisms and Related Supplications 1). The Ministry of Exorcism is not about some magic words which cancel out or undo some other magic. Rather, it is about accompanying an afflicted person on a spiritual journey of repentance, reconciliation and healing, so that he or she might be free to more fully become the son or daughter of the Almighty.
The fight against evil and the Devil is always like putting out into the deep, in understanding that the Sacraments, personal prayer, and the prayers of the Church can liberate us.