Q&A: The reality of exorcism for Canadian Catholics

National Post, Canada/January 28, 2011

"The devil likes to be an object of curiosity and sensationalism, and I don't want to give him any more attention than he deserves," a Calgary bishop announced in a statement several years ago. His headline-grabbing remarks came after it was revealed that a Canadian was among 120 priests set to attend a month-long course at the world's only formal school for exorcists at the Vatican.

Since then, the archdiocese of Ottawa, which has one official exorcist on hand, has reported seeing an average of four major exorcisms per year over the past five years, and a Quebec Catholic priest said last fall that he has performed roughly a dozen exorcisms since he was ordained nearly five years ago.

Indeed, exorcisms have been carried out in Canada for generations - albeit quietly, and in relatively small numbers as compared to countries such as Italy, where the belief in demons is more widespread. In 1999, the centuries-old rite was updated in the Vatican's 1614 manual on exorcism, Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications, reigniting interest in a practice most often associated with holy water, the crucifix, the Bible, and writhing humans exhibiting supernatural strength and demonic voices.

Then, more than a decade later, it was revealed that Italy - with its more than 300 official exorcists - was experiencing a shortage of priests able to perform the religious rite. Here, the National Post's Kathryn Blaze Carlson speaks with Neil MacCarthy, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Toronto, to dispel myths and gain insight into exorcisms in Canada.

Q How common are exorcisms in Catholic churches across Canada?

A The biggest misnomer is that priests are scheduling weekly exorcisms on Wednesday mornings at 11:30 or something. It just doesn't happen that way. If a diocese has one in a year, that would be a surprise. We haven't had a major exorcism in several decades in the Archdiocese of Toronto. A long time ago, there would have been cases where someone would say, "That person is ‘possessed.' " But today, we would say they were suffering from a mental illness. In Hollywood, they obviously embellish it to make it entertaining, but the reality is that [exorcism] occupies an extremely small amount of time. Unfortunately, with the Hollywood portrayal, and with each movie that comes out, there's an obsession with it - and that's just not our reality. At the end of the day, our approach is that if we live a life of faith, when we put other people before ourselves, then that wins out over evil.

Q What's the difference between a minor and major exorcism?

A Minor exorcisms take place in baptisms, for example. As Catholics, we believe that everyone is born with original sin, and through baptism, that original sin is cast out. Some people would even say that when it comes to the Our Father prayer - where we say, "Deliver us from evil," - that it, too, is a minor exorcism of sorts. When we have minor exorcisms, there's no presumption that a person is possessed by an evil spirit. It's more about recognizing that there's evil in the world, and that we want to cast that out of our own lives and the lives of others. A major exorcism, on the other hand, is the kind that's portrayed in Hollywood - the ones that involve casting out an evil spirit. Those are extremely rare. In a major exorcism, there would have been an assessment, and the conclusion would be, "Yes, this person is possessed."

Q Would a Canadian diocese like yours be prepared for a major exorcism?

A There are two priests that have been identified as exorcists in the Archdiocese of Toronto. They have proper training, and they're chosen because of their wisdom and their experience. This is not a position that they request, rather they are chosen and appointed by the Archbishop. The reason that we don't name those priests publicly isn't because we're trying to be secretive or because we have anything to hide. It's because we want to protect the anonymity of those priests. If they're identified as exorcists, then anyone who has any questions would try to go straight to them - and that's not their principal role in the church. I don't even know who they are. We haven't yet had to enlist those folks, other than to potentially have them consult in cases where we might want to investigate further.

Q If a parishoner believes he or she is possessed, how does the church determine if an exorcism is necessary?

A If someone says, "I want an exorcism," there are a number of stages that are involved. It would likely start with a discussion with the parish priest. There might be some counselling and prayer, and it might just end there. But if the priest felt that the matter needed to be pursued further, then he might bring in experts in psychology to see if there's something that can be diagnosed or identified. If not, then the next thing might be to involve the Chancellor of Spiritual Affairs, who is a bishop responsible for spiritual activities within the church and who has experience in Canon Law. So the priest might contact the Chancellor and say, "It looks like we're still in a situation where we need to pursue this further." Then the Chancellor would consult with the Archbishop and determine if there is a need to consult with the exorcists. The exorcists might then meet with the individual and conduct their own assessment. My understanding is that the person [who requested a major exorcism] would have to authorize it. It's a long process. In most cases, the requests are taken care of at the level of the parish priest or with the psychologist. We don't keep stats on this, but it's a rare and confidential thing.

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