If real life were anything like the movies, we’d all be used to seeing Catholic priests visiting the local haunted houses near us, at the stroke of midnight, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm to perform secret exorcisms. The reality of the Catholic exorcist is not quite like the Hollywood portrayal, although surprisingly there are a few things that the movies do get right. This Lent I had the opportunity to listen to an illuminating talk given by the exorcist of our neighboring diocese and it prompted me to do a bit of research about exorcisms on my own. What I found was quite fascinating, and I’d like to impart some of what I’ve learned to you all.
Let us begin by defining what exorcism is. The Church defines exorcism as the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things which are, or are believed to be, possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; by the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God or Christ. The word exorcism is derived from the Greek word
What is demonic activity?
There are five categories of demonic activity and each varies in severity. The first and most benign is something everyone knows well: the spiritual battle with temptation and sin. We all know that we are constantly under attack by the Enemy (Ephesians 6:11-12), and this is commonly known as spiritual warfare. Now, temptation can come from three sources: 1) our own nature, 2) the world, and 3) the Enemy. Temptations and urges towards evil are not sinful in themselves, they only become sinful when acted upon or when we actively consent to think about doing them. Consent is the key word here. Spiritual warfare is part of our daily struggle towards holiness. However, it can be seen as demonic if the temptations or urges suddenly appear without cause or reason: a sudden expletive or blasphemous thought while you are praying that you did not purposely think of, or graphic images that pop up seemingly out of nowhere. While these things can certainly be alarming and distressful there is good news, because the solution to fight off these attacks is very simple and does not require an exorcist. First, ignore these thoughts or images which are not yours; that is to say, do not stress over them, just let them pass like a wind blowing through your mind; give them no attention or extra thought. Secondly, draw closer to God in sacraments and prayer. Entrust yourself to God’s mercy. If it starts to become more of a problem, talk to your priest or confessor.
The second level is oppression/vexation. Oppression and vexation kick things up a notch and make the attacks physical. Oppression is when a deep depression and anxiety (for which there is no medical or psychological cause) fill a soul with despair and despondency. This can also be the “dark night of the soul.” Other signs of oppression and vexation can be bodily attacks or physical illnesses (for which there is no scientific or medical explanation), and unexplainable strife or persecutions where good people turn on other good people. Again, the key word there is “unexplainable.” Typically these things are allowed by God as a sort of test for us to strengthen our faith and to draw us nearer to Him. The story of Job is a textbook example for this, where God, trusting in Job’s faithfulness, tells Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand,” and allows Job to suffer greatly. This wasn’t to torment Job, it was to test his faith and love in whether he would choose God over Satan even in the worst of circumstances. Although Job did not understand why this was happening and questioned God, he still wore sackcloth and ashes and repented. In good and bad he served the Lord, even if he wasn’t happy about it.
These oppressions and vexations are most likely trials of patience and endurance given to us by God. Many saints including St. John Vianney, St. Faustina, and St. Padre Pio suffered these vexations. However, I will point out that there can be another cause to these opressions though very, very rare: being put under a hex or curse by a competent practitioner of the occult. Yes, you read that right; and no, I’m not being heretical or superstitious. It turns out that those dabbling in Satanism or the occult (and who know what they are doing) can put curses or hexes on other people. Think about it: hexes or curses are the opposite of blessings, so if you can bless people you can curse them too, but they absolutely cannot work on a person who is in communion with God. If a person is in a state of grace, then no amount of hexes or curses can harm that person. Where the Holy Spirit is, evil cannot be. The person has to be weakened and detached from God and faith to be susceptible to evil forces. But as I said earlier, cases of oppression and vexation by curse or hex are extremely rare.
The third category of demonic activity is obsession, and it is exactly what it sounds like. This is where a person becomes obsessed or unnaturally preoccupied with evil forces in his life. The evil entity wages war on a person’s psyche and drives him to thoughts of darkness, despair, and suicide. This is a very difficult one to tack down as demon-induced because mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, or obsessive compulsive disorder can all be to blame. In this case, proper medical treatment is the solution. Proper medical evaluation, prayer, and priestly ministry are needed to diagnose this particular brand of demonic activity.
Now we move on to the fourth level, which really ups the ante: demon infestation. Infestation is the haunting of an object, animal, or a place. Think of houses that had a past of Satanic rituals and cults, or objects that have been used in black magic, witchcraft, or similar occult practices. The activity is limited to the specific object, animal, or place and is not attached to a specific person. Destructive behaviors, things of a malevolent nature, or strange disruptive happenings are indicators of infestations. In situations like these, exorcists are needed to dispel the spirit attached to whatever object, animal, or place is infested.
Finally we come to the fifth and worst, but rarest of all kinds of demonic activity and that is full-blown bodily possession. There are two kinds of bodily possession: the first is involuntary possession, where the demon enters without permission of the person’s will, and the second is integration, where the person accepts the demon. It is important to note, though, that even though a demon may possess a person’s body, it cannot possess a person’s soul or free will. So they can corrupt the body, but they cannot corrupt the soul or will. If a person dies during an exorcism (which according to the exorcist who gave the talk has never happened to him personally), the soul would go to judgement before God just like any other soul would. It is not necessarily damned just because a demon had taken control of its body. Consequently if a person dies then the demon has to evacuate the body immediately. It cannot reanimate the body and use it if the “host soul” (if you will) has already passed. So rest easy, because no zombie demons are walking around out there right now — thanks be to God!
How to tell if a person is possessed?
Here is how the Church determines a person to be possessed (as opposed to physically or mentally ill): the exorcist first requires the person to undergo a full physical examination by an internist — not a regular doctor — who has to undergo several additional years of schooling. This is to make sure that he or she does not have a physical ailment like a brain tumor or epilepsy. Secondly, the person has to undergo a complete psychological examination by a licensed professional. Then the exorcist meets with the person and with his family and friends to delve more deeply into his personal history. The exorcist tries to look for a previous encounter or brush with the occult that could be the cause or open doorway into which the demon gained entry. I will go into more detail about what some of these doorways are a little bit later. Once the priest gets a feel for the person they then look for several tell-tale indicators of demonic possession, which are…
- An intense aversion to holy things. Being unable to stay in a church for a period of time or having great difficulty doing so, being unable to bear the sight of a crucifix, rolling of the eyes upon seeing sacramentals or sacred objects, hating the sight of a statue of the Virgin Mary, etc…
- Being able to “speak in tongues” or speak foreign languages that the possessed person in question would otherwise have no means of knowing.
- Supernatural strength.
- A heightened knowledge that a normal person either could not have or should not have had such as predicting future events or knowing information about people, situations, or the priest in question, that there is no means for the person to know.
- Having physical changes in appearance such as facial contortions like a bone structure change (the priest who gave the talk had witnessed a person’s jaw completely extend to the side), a change in voice (usually a lower and deeper register), and changes in body language (some can even change to take on the looks of a snake or reptile. Yeah, try not to imagine that one too hard!)
Other indicators make their ways known during the actual exorcism process: screaming or laughing hysterically, an intention towards great violence (especially during the prayers), numerous voices coming out of a person at one time, frothing at the mouth, a gray cast or complexion coming over the skin, a burning sensation when placed in contact with holy water or objects, and even levitating (apparently the movie The Exorcist got that right).
If the priest believes that the person is possessed, he submits a written report of the situation to his bishop requesting permission to perform the exorcism rite. If he is granted permission, he then will meet with the possessed person and set up a time and location for the exorcism to take place. The location, date, and time are all up to the exorcist’s discretion. Typically the exorcism is done during the day, in a church or private office of the priest (no creepy abandoned houses here), that allows for complete privacy so that the Rite isn’t disturbed by anyone and the identity of the person being exorcised remains anonymous.
How does one become possessed?
There is no surefire way by which one becomes possessed; however, as I mentioned before, there are certain encounters with the occult that can act as “doorways” to allow for demonic entry into our bodies. These things can be anything from Satanic rituals (even those done on a child from a Satanic family without their consent), tarot card readings, practicing or dabbling in witchcraft or some other form of “magic,” Ouija boards, palm reading, mediums or psychics, ghost hunting, or the more recent “Charlie, Charlie” challenge, etc…. These things go against the first commandment “You shall have no other God’s before Me,” because you are turning to “powers” or means that are not Godly. For more on this you can check out our lovely Emerald’s article No, you can’t be a Christian and a witch.
I mentioned integration before; that is where a person actually consents with his free will to allow a demon to enter his body. You are probably thinking only a Satanist would do something like that; however, the exorcist I listened to told us a story about a well-meaning woman who thought a friend of hers was being possessed, so she went up to her and said, “I command the demon inside of you to enter into me.” She thought that since she was a good Christian woman this would end the matter; however, since she had full knowledge and consent of what she was saying (though she didn’t understand the consequences of it), the demon was able to transfer over and possess her. The exorcist said that when he performed the exorcism and demanded the demon to leave the demon replied, “No, I was invited.” Of course the demon was finally exorcised in the end, but this goes to show that one should be careful in one’s words and dealings with the supernatural. Again, this came about because the woman used her free will with full knowledge of what she was doing. A demon cannot enter you if you merely thought the words but did not consent with your FULL will. So rest easy, my scrupulous brothers and sisters — you are safe.
Another thing I mentioned above was hexes or curses. These can lead a demon to vex or harass a person; however, full possession is incredibly rare to begin with and even rarer from a hex or a curse. The hex or curse can only affect a person who is not in a state of grace and who is not close to God. Those who wear the armor of God and who hold the shield of faith (Ephesians 6:10-17) are in no danger of any type of curse or possession.
There are other things that attract demons to a person that just might surprise you. Broken relationships, hatred, trauma, pornography, resentment, drug use, and revenge function as beacons to demons. Demons feed off of anger, degradation, chaos, and bitterness. That is why exorcists take the time to get to know the person they are dealing with. If the priest finds a lot of discord or wrath in a person, he will urge and work with the person towards forgiveness and reconciliation with or towards the other parties who have hurt them.
Now we all have those emotions or situations in our lives to some extent, so it is very important for me to point out that as long as you are living your faith, staying in a state of grace, and communicating regularly with God you are in no danger of demonic possession. The devil is like a lion (1 Peter 5:8-9) prowling about the Earth looking for prey. But what do lions do in the wild? Do they hunt the healthy ones who are surrounded by others? No, they go for the weak, the lonely, and the sick. The enemy does the same, he looks for those who have fallen away from God or who have never known Him (the spiritually weak and sick, if you will), and those who are isolated from their families, friends, and communities. These souls are like the weakened zebra in the wild, vulnerable to attack and in this day and age easy to come by.
Demons aren’t contagious.
I repeat, demons are not contagious. A demon can’t travel through your TV screen while you’re watching a scary movie and possess you. You can sleep with the lights off now, horror movie fans. However, I would advise those that are prone to scrupulosity or intrusive thoughts to steer clear of anything that might trigger them. No need to give those nightmares or fears any more ammunition, right?
You can’t “catch” a case of demonic possession either. Demons can’t jump from one possessed person to another (unless explicitly invited like the example above). They do not have the power to infringe upon our free will. So if somehow you find yourself in a situation where you fear someone else may be possessed, don’t worry — demons aren’t like communicable diseases; you are safe from contamination.
Does a possessed person know they are possessed?
Cases vary. Sometimes the person will report having been aware of what was happening, but having no control. He or she was cognizant of everything but was rendered completely helpless. Others have no recollection of the time they were possessed or of any of their actions during it. As unsettling as the thought may be, yes, a person can be possessed and feel completely normal for a time without realizing that there is a demon inside of him (his friends and others will be able to tell, though). Fortunately a demon cannot possess a person 24 hours a day, although the person’s mental state may be a bit compromised in the in-between time. I said it before, but a demon has no control over our souls or free wills even if the body is possessed.
Why do demons possess people, anyway?
Many reasons really, but the chief reason (according to the exorcist I listened to) is that the greatest thing that ever happened to mankind was the Incarnation. God became man, and thus elevated the status of mankind forever. We humans, though fallen in our nature, are made in the image and likeness of God. So when a demon possesses a human he is in a sense attempting to incarnate himself in our bodies in order to corrupt them.
Angels and demons are pure spirit. They have no flesh of their own. They are neither here nor there, so when we say there is a demon inside someone it really isn’t “inside” of them so much as it is attached to them, working through them, and controlling them. They can be around them, but they aren’t literally inside of them. Space does not contain them, they contain space. They can “fill” a person’s body, but they aren’t enclosed inside the person’s body. Confused? Think of it this way: people can fill a church, and in that sense the church “contains” them, but the people can walk out the doors anytime they want. They are not trapped inside. So it is with demons inside of a body. They can contain it, but are not contained by it.
What happens during an exorcism?
Before an exorcism starts the exorcist typically prepares himself by going to confession, receiving the Eucharist, celebrating the Mass, and praying. He dresses himself in a surplice with a purple stole, then arms himself with holy water, a crucifix, relic(s) of a saint(s), and the text of the Rite itself. Then the priest stands before the possessed person and makes the sign of the cross over him, anyone else in the room, and himself. An exorcist never performs an exorcism alone. He needs others to assist him in prayer and to hold down the possessed person if necessary. Then the priest sprinkles everyone, including himself, with holy water. He then kneels and prays the Litany of Saints. After that he will read a few Psalms (53, 90, and 67, just to name a few).
When that is finished he recites a prayer of command aimed at the demon:
“I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moreover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions.”
Then there is the laying on of hands, where the priest places his hands on the head of the possessed person and says over them:
“They shall lay their hands upon the sick and all will be well with them. May Jesus, Son of Mary, Lord and Savior of the world, through the merits and intercession of His holy apostles Peter and Paul and all His saints, show you favor and mercy. Amen.”
Next the priest signs himself and the possessed person on the forehead, the lips, and chest before reading a few chosen passages from the Gospels. After the first passage is finished he will give the possessed person a blessing saying:
“May the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, come upon you and remain with you forever.”
After which he again sprinkles the possessed person with holy water. Then he will continue to read the remaining chosen Gospel passages. More exorcism prayers are prayed and repeated for as long as necessary to drive out the demon. Other prayers are interspersed between the exorcism prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, the Glory Be, the Canticles of Zechariah and Our Lady, and the Athanasian Creed. Once the priest believes that the demon(s) has departed for good he will then pray the prayer of deliverance and conclude the Rite.
“Almighty God, we beg you to keep the evil spirit from further molesting this servant of yours, and to keep him far away, never to return. At your command, 0 Lord, may the goodness and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, take possession of this man/woman. May we no longer fear any evil since the Lord is with us; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.”
The Rite of Exorcism is actually pretty simple and straightforward for the priest, but the demon(s) try all manner of things to distract the priest or stop the Rite. They will scream and laugh hysterically, speak of hidden things such as future events, or bring things up about the priest; they can try and throw things or become violent; they will lie and try to deceive the priest into believing that they are the spirit of a saint or good angel; they can even try to distract them by levitating or doing other strange things. Demons are desperate and will try all sorts of things and speak all sorts of nonsense, anything to throw off the priest. This is why it is imperative to have a humble and holy priest. A good exorcist will not pay any attention to the antics of the evil spirit and will command it to be silent unless spoken to and will not delve into conversation with the spirit other than to ask it a few important questions, such as: how many are inhabiting the person, when they entered into the person and why, and what their names are. The exorcist commands the demons to tell him their names because when you have the name of something you have power over it.
In some exorcisms, the exorcist can ask a few more questions of the demon or demons in question, but these excessive questions can actually decrease the success rate of the exorcism and can cause the exorcism to take a much longer time (we’re talking months and years here). This is not typical, and many exorcists stick to the strict rule of using only the words in the Rite and do not engage the demon in any further conversation.
The whole point of an exorcism is to re-establish or forge a connection between God and the soul of the possessed person. A person can only be possessed if he gave up (or never had) the connection with God in the first place, so the priest encourages the person afterwards to get back in touch with whatever faith it is they had before or urge them to kindle a new faith in God. Those who have committed apostasy are in more danger of possession than those who have never known God, because they freely chose to walk away from Him and severed the connection. But God is always ready and willing to accept and bring any soul back to Him. It is critical that the formerly possessed person maintain a relationship with God and that he steers clear of any “doorways” or occult dealings which opened him up to the Enemy in the first place.
What does an exorcist do after the Rite is over?
Well, that is up to the priest. The exorcist who spoke to my parish said he went to Dairy Queen! It is important for an exorcist to remain positive and retain a light spirit and a sense of humor. If not, the evil they deal with can drive them mad.
How long does it take for an exorcism to work?
That depends; the prayers take time and it takes some observation on the part of the exorcist to see what effects he is having on the demon(s). The exorcism is usually deemed over once the manifestations stop; however, sometimes the demons will try and trick the exorcist into thinking that they have gone when they haven’t. Ultimately the exorcist will have to make a judgement call as to whether or not he believes they are gone. So it is up to him to decide when is the best time to conclude the rite.
Sometimes only one exorcism is needed, but others can span a period of time, especially if there are multiple demons infesting one person. Why? Well, because when a priest is dealing with a cluster of demons, typically the weaker or lesser demons are the first to be exorcised while the bigger and worse demon stays behind until the end. You see, demons can vary in their power and each one has a sort of “specialty.” Demons are the angels that fell. There are nine choirs of angels, and each choir holds a different “rank” and “specialty”; so it stands to reason that those demons who fell from the higher choirs are stronger than those who fell from the lower ones.
Are all spirits evil?
Most of the time, but not necessarily. Sometimes God will allow a soul in purgatory in need of extensive reparation to connect with the living so that the living can pray for them. The contact from a spirit in purgatory is never malicious or malevolent. To get the attention of the living they may move or “bump” objects or make strange noises. These attempts to connect can manifest themselves in a number of ways and can be scary at times for the living, but they are never threatening, destructive, or dangerous. A few prayers for that soul or having a few Masses said for them is usually all it takes for these occurrences to abate. Cases of souls contacting the living are rare, though.
Everybody faces judgement when they die; you either go to Heaven or Hell, there is no in-between (Purgatory is in Heaven, for those that don’t know). A soul can’t escape judgement or choose to come back and haunt people or places. God is in control the entire time. So regarding those ghost-hunting reality shows where people talk to “ghosts” or get some sort of response from them, most exorcists will tell you it isn’t ghosts they are communicating with at all, but demons.
How does one find an exorcist?
By right, every bishop is an exorcist because of his office; however, there are certain priests who are delegated by their bishops to be exorcists. Rounded up, there are around 200 dioceses in the United States, but there are only about 50 established working exorcists. (I am not aware of the statistics for other countries. Sorry.) If a person believes he is in need of an exorcist he can petition his bishop for one (via letter or e-mail) and the bishop will then decide to appoint him an exorcist or not.
I would recommend only using a Catholic exorcist myself, however the Catholic Church does not have a lock on exorcisms. Pastors, ministers, and members of other faiths who believe in the power of Jesus to exorcise demons can all perform exorcisms. Think of the Gospel passage where people were driving out demons in Jesus’s name and Jesus tells John not to stop them (Luke 9:49-50).
I would immediately dissuade anyone from looking for an exorcist on the Internet or in the yellow pages, especially if they are trying to charge a fee for it. As the exorcist who spoke to my parish put it, “If I made money off of exorcising people, I’d see evil everywhere.” The Catholic Church does not charge anyone for their exorcism services, ever.
I would also like to point out that the holiness and strength of the person performing the exorcism does matter. A LOT. Unlike with baptisms, where the holiness of the minister doesn’t affect the efficacy of the sacrament, a person’s holiness when performing an exorcism does affect the outcome. If the person’s faith wavers and he gives in to fear as he is demanding the demon to leave, then that person is in trouble. The exorcist has to believe that God is stronger and that God can do it. He can’t be timid or doubt. Another way it can go wrong is if at any time the exorcist thinks or accredits the power of exorcism to himself. The exorcist steps into unholy territory here. It is God, and God alone, who has power over demons and it is God only who forces them out. If a person’s pride ever manifests itself during an exorcism, the exorcism will not work. Period.
Okay, so I’m officially freaked out now, what can I do to prevent being a victim of demonic activity?
Just live your faith. Go to church as you should, receive the sacraments regularly, pray every day, and stay close to God. You should never be afraid of the Enemy because God and the devil are not on equal playing fields. The Enemy does not have equal or greater power than God. God is Creator, and the devil and his demons are all just creatures. Demons and the devil will be around until the Final Judgment, but their days are numbered and they are powerless against God. In the battle between good and evil, God always wins. End of story.
It is imperative that you never, ever forget that God loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to suffer and die, so that you, yes YOU, could be with Him for all eternity. There is no limit to God’s love, mercy, or the lengths He will go to save you. So long as you accept His love and wish to be with Him forever, you will always be safe from the Enemy. So place your trust in Him and ask Him to fill you with His peace.
Don’t forget to call upon the communion of saints to aid and intercede for you as well. All of them are great allies to have on your side, and the beautiful part is, they are ALL on your side. In times of temptation, call upon your guardian angel. Your angel was assigned to you by God Himself to protect you from unseen forces; your angel wants to help you even more than you want to be helped. So never forget that you have a warrior angel fighting for you 24/7.
The devil and his kind especially hate the Virgin Mary. In the book of Revelation, our Blessed Mother crushes the head of Satan under her foot, and she is the only human (other than Jesus, who is God and man) who was ever sinless. This makes her a powerful intercessor against the forces of evil. A mother protecting her child is always a force to be reckoned with. Her husband, St. Joseph, isn’t called the Terror of Demons for nothing; he was charged with protecting Jesus Himself, so he’s more than qualified to help protect us as well. Let’s not forget, either, the angel who cast Satan out of Heaven with his sword. That’s right: St. Michael the Archangel has been leading God’s army since the beginning, and he doesn’t hesitate to help us when we are confronted with evil. Still not enough for you? Well, other notable saints you might like to talk to are St. John Paul II, St. Benedict, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio, St. Gemma Galgani, St. Faustina, and St. Anthony of the Desert.
Arming yourself with holy water, crucifixes, and other sacramentals are good too, just don’t become superstitious with them. Holy water, saint medals, and other objects only work because of the belief in God and His power, not because of the item or object itself. These things are only supplementary and do nothing in and of themselves when it comes to fighting the forces of evil. No amount of burning sage is going to drive any demon away. Only belief in God and His working power protects us.
In closing, don’t let fear of the Enemy ever steal your peace. Know your enemy, but don’t fear him. You are protected and loved by a kind and merciful God and you have the whole host of Heaven in your corner rooting for you. What can the Enemy possibly do against that? Nothing, unless you let him keep you from calling upon them. So don’t focus on the evil lurking about in the world and instead focus on the good. As St. Paul says in Philippians 4:4-9
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
Tags » catholicism, demons, evil, exorcism, exorcisms, exorcists, good and evil, possession, priests, satan, the Devil