Recently a news item surfaced about a two day conference in Baltimore to train Catholic priests about the rite of exorcism. The secular media reflected general skepticism about the topic.
The Catholic News Service reported the conference was; “In response to growing interest in the rite of exorcism and a shortage of trained exorcists nationwide.” The story was also picked up positively by the Kansas City Star.
St Francis- Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo 1297-99 Giotto Di Bondone (b. 1267, d. 1337)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms our continued belief in Satan and evil spirits or demons. These beings are spirits or angels who have fallen by their radically and irrevocably rejection of God (CCC 392). The Catechism reminds us that although Satan has real power as a spiritual being, he is nonetheless a creature, and not infinite like God (CCC 392).
In His public ministry witnessed in the Gospels we see Jesus healing many people who are troubled by evil spirits (Matthew 8:28-34; 9:32-34; 12:22-32). Jesus disciples continued this ministry with His authority (Matthew 10:1; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1). Upon returning to Jesus after ministering to the people the seventy-two disciples report;
. . . "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name." 18 Jesus said, "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. 19 Behold, I have given you the power 'to tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:17-20).
The rite of exorcism is an ancient ritual that has been part of Christian experience since the beginning of the faith. One of the early Fathers of the Church, Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) writes;
“For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs” (2 Apology 6). The ecclesial writer Tertullian (160-225 AD) complains that though the Christians defend the Romans from incursions and depredations of devils for free, they are treated unjustly “without the least touch of gratitude for the benefit of so great a protection” (Apologeticus pro Christianis 37).
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) 5:750, the office of exorcist was established during the third century and the term was used to refer to a cleric who had received the third of the four minor orders. In modern times the ministry of a major exorcism falls to the priest with special permission of the ordinary. The Catechism notes;
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness. (CCC 1673).
Our growing knowledge of mental illness has not eliminated our need for the rite of exorcism. The modern commercial, movie versions of these experiences are, of course, very inaccurate. We should place our trust in our daily walk with Christ and in the continued authority of Church in this area. As the Curé d'Ars said; “The devil is a great chained dog which puts people to flight, and which makes a great noise, but which only bites those who come too close. (Curé d'Ars, Sermon on Temptations). Saint Josemaría Escrivá once said,
You carry on the war — the daily struggles of your interior — far from the main walls of your fortress.
And the enemy meets you there: in your small mortifications, your customary prayer, your methodical work, your plan of life: and with difficulty will he come close to the easily-scaled battlements of your castle. And if he does come, he comes exhausted. (The Way 307).
Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with scenes from her martyrdom.