Stories of demonic possessions and exorcisms are cloaked in mystery and fear. Although there is rarely a word about it from church pulpits, many Christian denominations deem it no mere fiction but a reality that dates back to the time of Christ. The Catholic Church has actually ritualized exorcism in which the priest, standing in the person of Jesus Christ, has the power to expel demons.
Public intrigue in exorcism will be ignited anew with the Jan. 28 release of the movie "The Rite" starring Anthony Hopkins. The movie was inspired by a story chronicled in the book "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," in which journalist Matt Baglio followed Father Gary Thomas during his training to become an exorcist.
He took a class on exorcism at the Pontifical University in Rome, but his real training was under the tutelage of an experienced Italian exorcist. Thomas ended up participating in more than 80 exorcisms.
"I believed in the devil and possessions, but the reactions during exorcism was more extreme than anything I had expected," he stated. "I am not afraid to confront someone with a demonic attachment, though. In reality, God is the ultimate power. It is important to say that. They are not equal adversaries."
Thomas pointed to the increased practice of the occult in Europe leading to an increase in possessions. The Pope John XXIII Community Association puts that number at 14 million or 25 percent of Italians involved in the occult.
"Two months before Pope John Paul died, he issued a mandate through Cardinal Ratzinger to train exorcists in every diocese," Thomas said. "He saw occultism spreading and believed there would be a growing need for exorcists."
The training of an exorcist however, is an elusive term for there is no specific training course or book that transforms a priest into an exorcist. Most learn from others in an apprentice-like fashion. Exorcism was established as a rite with specific prayers, in 1614 and revised by the Vatican in 1998. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as the "liberation from demonic possession through the authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church."
Canon law requires a priest to have the permission of his bishop to perform it. This puts the full weight of the church behind him. Apart from exorcisms, this healing ministry also includes deliverance from harassment of evil spirits
Last fall in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops held a two-day conference on exorcism and deliverance.
"The church has never changed its teaching on exorcism but after the Second Vatican Council, I think many individuals moved away from talking about the devil," said meeting organizer Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, of Springfield , Ill., chairman of the bishops Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.
He said that recent conversations with priests in the ministry made him realize that they are feeling overburdened by calls outside their area.
"The conference was to help educate and motivate bishops and priests to provide this ministry in their own diocese," he said. "I think every bishop should be prepared to handle these kind of inquiries."
If there is anything different about a modern-day exorcist, it is the use of a deliverance team for support. When Thomas returned from Rome, he started a new assignment as a parish pastor. Although Thomas’ situation has been made public by the book and movie, most exorcists keep that aspect of their ministry quiet so as not to detract from their primary priestly duties. "I didn't tell anyone, 'by the way your new pastor is an exorcist,’ but my second day on the job, the secretary came in and told me, 'There's someone here about an exorcism,'" he said.
In short order Thomas had to quickly assemble his "healing" team to include a physician, a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist to evaluate cases. Often times problems are found to stem from natural causes such as mental illness so they need to be screened carefully.
Thomas stated that the common signs of possessions are behaviors that have no logical explanation such as fluency in a language a person never studied, ability to know secrets they had no way of knowing, extraordinary strength, and an aversion to sacred objects such as the crucifix.
"However, the exorcist is the ultimate skeptic," Thomas said. "An exorcism only happens after everything else has failed. Most of the time, we are dealing with mental health issues."
Msgr. John Esseff who has been a priest for 57 years and an exorcist for 53, concurs with that.
"Possession is very rare," he said. "I've only seen two cases. But the devil does oppress and obsess, where a person feels a force comes against them."
In such cases, the priest and the team pray for the person and help them to get away from any occult practices they have been involved with which would have opened the door to evil.
Esseff stressed that it's important for people not to focus too much attention on possessions.
"The ordinary activity of Satan is temptation," he said. "That is his M.O. (mode of operation) In the last two petitions of the ‘Our Father,’ Jesus teaches us to pray, 'lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.’ It refers to Satan himself and his activity."
Paprocki also said the danger of movies and books on exorcism is that it becomes sensationalized and people fail to see that the battle between good and evil takes place in their own lives on a daily basis.
"The remedy that the church offers from her treasures is the sacraments, blessings, devotions, prayers and holy water. That is the normal work of the priest," he said.
He stated that people should also be aware of the consequences of their choices particularly with the occult.
"Possession is a relationship with a human being and a fallen angel," Paprocki said. "That is something that people enter into freely. They open a door and enter into a relationship. After a while the relationship goes sour and it is not always that easy to get out of. Sometimes, it can take awhile for that relationship to be broken, but if you live a sacramental life you don't need to worry about the devil."
Patti Maguire Armstrong is a Bismarck author; website RaisingCatholicKids.com. Her books are all sold at the Parables Rainbow Shop.