by Elisabeth Deffner
ANAHEIM, Calif. (CNS) – In addition to the usual teen and children’s programs and the expected selection of workshops on such topics as the power of God and healing relationships, the 41st annual Catholic Renewal Convention sponsored by Southern California Renewal Communities offered a look into the reality of evil in the world today.
But the conference workshops focusing on exorcism and deliverance ministry were a far cry from the sensationalistic Hollywood versions of exorcism that have hit the silver screen recently.
“It’s not all about high drama,” said Father Gary Thomas, exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose and the subject of the book, and film of the same name, The Rite.
“The sense of the horrific is not at the heart of exorcism; healing is at the heart of exorcism,” he said.
The Aug. 31-Sept. 2 gathering at the Anaheim Convention Center drew thousands from around the world. The conference featured two tracks on exorcism — general and pastoral.
Father Thomas — also the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Saratoga, Calif. — said 80 percent of the people he meets with to discern whether they have a demonic attachment are survivors of sexual abuse by parents, siblings, extended family or neighbors. He also said the vast majority of the people who come to see him are struggling with mental health challenges, not demonic influence.
“Most,” he reiterated. “But not all.”
Discernment is, perhaps, the most time-consuming responsibility of an exorcist. Speaker after speaker explained that potential natural causes for various issues must be ruled out before preternatural causes can be seriously considered.
Father Jose Antonio Fortea, an exorcist from the Archdiocese of Madrid and author of Interview With an Exorcist, said that after undergoing intense discernment, “I am sure when I say to someone, ‘You are possessed.’
“In some cases,” he added, “I am not sure when I say, ‘You are not possessed.’”
He values the input of the team he works with, and also assists the person to connect with another exorcist for a sort of spiritual second opinion. After all, the priest said, people can make errors.
Why the sudden interest in exorcism? Convention speakers said anyone who believes that the interest in exorcism, or the need for it, is new has simply not been paying attention.
After all, the Old Testament makes reference to the casting out of demons. And in the New Testament, Jesus held two primary roles in his public ministry: teacher and healer. As a healer, he not only restored sight and raised the dead but also cast out demons.
For centuries, the Church and society accepted the need for exorcism. Exorcist was even a minor order. In recent decades, however, the idea of exorcism has fallen out of favor, with many people saying they don’t believe in Satan or hell.
But in 2004, Pope John Paul II called on each diocese across the world to appoint an exorcist. Not all dioceses have yet complied. Though there are nearly 200 dioceses in the United States, for instance, there are fewer than 70 known exorcists among them.
Though there are still plenty who dismiss the idea of the devil and demonic attachment, “It’s real,” said Father Jeffrey Grob, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “What makes it cunning by the evil one is the air of unreality. ‘Come on — it’s 2012! You’re going to worship Satan? He doesn’t even exist!’”
The workshops also included the exorcist for the Diocese of Oakland and the retired exorcist for the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark. Besides other clergy, the workshops drew laypeople, many of whom are involved in prayer groups and deliverance ministries, helping free people from demonic affliction. While only clergy can be exorcists, laypeople can offer certain prayers of deliverance.
Rachel Arias, who traveled from Fresno, Calif., to attend the convention with her cousin Cora Trujillo from Fuller, Texas, is part of a prayer group that has worked with many suffering people. In a break between workshops, she spoke about one young man who tumbled to the floor, growling ferociously, seemingly not conscious of his own actions.
“But you’re not afraid, because you know you’re with the Lord,” Arias said, noting that the young man relaxed and opened his eyes after prayers of deliverance were prayed over him.
“To me, it’s amazing,” she said.