Special Feature: Exorcism: An Overview Part 2

In Part 2 of our series on exorcisms – in anticipation of Warner Bros.’ The Rite, releasing January 28th – B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen briefly discusses how a Roman Catholic exorcism is performed, what the standards are for determining demonic possession, and the ways in which the practice endures even in modern times. Just make sure not to try this at home – these acts are to be performed by seasoned exorcists only and not attempted on younger siblings or crotchety old relatives.
Also Read: Exorcism: An Overview Part 1

Its cinematic interpretations aside, however, what is an exorcism ritual really like? While with the advent of modern medical and psychiatric theory the practice is far less utilized than it was previously, it is still (controversially) sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church by being included in the Rituale Romanum, one of the official “handbooks” followed by priests when performing rites. Indeed, every Catholic Diocese around the world technically has a priest specifically designated to perform the rite of exorcism on persons who meet the standards outlined for possession.

Determining whether or not to go forth with the exorcism of a disturbed individual is a process that in modern-day Catholicism includes evaluation by medical and psychiatric professionals to see whether the symptoms of disturbance can be attributed to either mental illness or undiagnosed physical problems. If these possibilities (not to mention the possibility of outright fraud) are fully or at least partially ruled out, a Church-sanctioned priest can then theoretically be cleared to perform the exorcism rites. Some of the more surefire symptoms of demonic possession, as outlined by the Catholic Church, include:

1) Knowledge of future events or obscure concepts the allegedly possessed person couldn’t have possibly known about;
2) Speaking in languages either unknown to the person or so arcane as to have fallen out of use in the modern world;
3) Physical feats outside the realm of possibility given the person’s physical size and/or abilities; and
4) A physical aversion to sacred objects.

Interestingly, while most people associate the word “exorcism” with demonic possession, this is not the only reason an exorcism is performed; there are actually three different categories of exorcism that are utilized for different purposes. In fact, anyone who has been baptized in the Catholic Church has technically been exorcised in order to cleanse them of original sin, in a rite officially known as “baptismal exorcism”. Another type is “simple exorcism”, in which an object or physical place is blessed in order to rid it of evil influence. The sort of exorcism we all think of when we hear the term is identified simply as “real exorcism”, which involves expelling a demon or demons from a possessed individual.

During a Church-sanctioned “real exorcism”, the designated priest – dressed in official surplice and purple stole – employs various methods to try and drive the demon out. The ritual consists mainly of a series of prayers that both implore God to free the possessed person from the Devil’s influence (“the imploring formula”) and demand that the demon leave the possessed individual in the name of God (“the imperative formula”). At particular times the priest will also perform actions such as sprinkling holy water, making the sign of the cross upon the possessed, and touching the possessed with Catholic relics, often those associated with a saint (the actual physical remains of saints, including bone fragments and hair, are also known to have been used).

The “real exorcism” ritual is considered to be an incredibly dangerous and demanding spiritual and physical task, and while all ordained priests are technically eligible to perform an exorcism, only a select few of them ever actually do, at least in any official capacity (though the modern world is filled with those claiming to be exorcists, many of them scam artists). The priest performing an exorcism sanctioned by the Catholic Church must actually be appointed by a Bishop who believes that the man in question is up to the rigors of the task before him, as it is believed by many in the Church that if the priest is not strong enough in his religious convictions he may be susceptible to possession himself.

Interestingly, Vatican-affiliated school Regina Apostolorum University in Rome now offers a class on exorcism entitled “Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation”. In the course, priests (and some non-priests) learn about the historical and theological basis of exorcism and hear lectures by experts in satanic cults, criminology and other areas related to Satanism and demonic possession, as well as by authorities in the psychiatric field, whose role is to educate students about the mental illnesses that may be confused with “genuine” demonic possession. The fact that the class is only six years old (it began in 2004) is a sure sign that the practice of exorcism, while not nearly as prevalent as it was in the earlier days of the Catholic church, is still alive and well in the modern world.

There’s even an organization named the International Association of Exorcists that was founded in 1993 – that’s just 17 years ago – by six Roman Catholic priests who still believe demonic possession to be a prevailing problem in the world and dedicate themselves to training and supporting priests who engage in exorcisms. Indeed, the U.S. Catholic Church reportedly receives about 400 inquiries every year from people who believe themselves or someone they know to be possessed by the Devil, and according to a 2005 Gallup poll 42% of Americans still believe in possession. Even if you’re a skeptic, that’s quite a startling number, and it should give pause to anyone who may be under the impression that exorcism is confined to the past and Hollywood fright movies.