For Catholics, Interest In Exorcism Is Revived


There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they  say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by  the Devil.

American bishops held a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests  and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the  practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to  distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or  perhaps some pastoral care.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop  Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only  used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in  terms of actually being in possession of the person.

“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and  extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

The closed-door conference is being held in Baltimore before the annual fall meeting  of the nation’s bishops. Some Catholic commentators said they were puzzled why the  bishops would bother with exorcisms in a year when they are facing a full plate of  crises — from parish and school closings, to polls showing the loss of one of every  three white baptized members, to the sexual abuse scandal flaring up again.

But to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University  of Notre Dame, the bishops’ timing makes perfect sense.

“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime  observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the  church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is  supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can  be given the faculties of exorcism.

“It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the  World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”

Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized a return to traditional rituals and practices, and  some observers said the bishops’ interest in exorcism was consistent with the  direction set by the pope.

Exorcism is as old as Christianity itself. The New Testament has accounts of Jesus  casting out demons, and it is cited in the Catholic Church’s catechism. But it is  now far more popular in Europe, Africa and Latin America than in the United States.

Most exorcisms are not as dramatic as the bloody scenes in films. The ritual is  based on a prayer in which the priest invokes the name of Jesus. The priest also  uses holy water and a cross, and can alter the prayer depending on the reaction he  gets from the possessed person, said Matt Baglio, a journalist in Rome who wrote the  book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (Doubleday, 2009).

“The prayer comes from the power of Jesus’ name and the church. It doesn’t come from  the power of the exorcist. The priest doesn’t have the magic power,” said Mr.  Baglio, whose book has been made into a movie to be released in January, starring  Anthony Hopkins.

There is plenty of cynicism among American Catholics — even among priests — about  exorcism. Mr. Baglio noted that there are hucksters who prey on vulnerable  believers, causing them physical or spiritual harm. As a result, he thought it was  helpful that the church is making an effort to train more priests to perform the  rite legitimately.

With so few priests who perform exorcisms, and the stigma around it, exorcists are  not eager to be identified. Efforts to interview them on Friday were unsuccessful.

Bishop Paprocki said he was surprised at the turnout for the conference: 66 priests  and 56 bishops. The goal is for each diocese to have someone who can at least screen  requests for exorcisms.

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include  speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of  strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God;  and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the  skin.

A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a  mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which  superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614.

The Rev. Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, an  organization for American priests, said that when he first heard about the  conference on exorcism, “My immediate reaction was to say, why?”

He said that he had not heard of any requests for exorcisms and that the topic had  not come up in the notes of meetings from councils of priests in various dioceses.

The conference on exorcism comes at a time, he said, when the church is bringing  back traditional practices. The Vatican has authorised the revival of the Latin  Mass, and now a revised English translation of the liturgy, said to be closer to a  direct translation from the Latin, is to be put in use in American parishes next  year.

“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My  first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of  those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

But he said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of  the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those  cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.

Bishop Paprocki noted that according to Catholic belief, the Devil is a real and  constant force who can intervene in people’s lives — though few of them will require  an exorcism to handle it.

“The ordinary work of the Devil is temptation,” he said, “and the ordinary response  is a good spiritual life, observing the sacraments and praying. The Devil doesn’t  normally possess someone who is leading a good spiritual life.”

•Culled from the New York Times

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