January 2008

The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century.  By Tracy Wilkinson. Grand Central Publishing. 208 pages. $22.95.

It's a telling sign that the movement of Western culture toward secular atheism has been accompanied in recent decades by a skyrocketing interest in one of the Catholic Church's most arcane and, in the eyes of nonbelievers, backward rituals. Tracy Wilkinson hopes to capitalize on this surge of interest with her new book, The Vatican's Exorcists, by offering an outsider's perspective on the phenomenon of exorcism in present-day Italy. The results are, at best, mixed.

Wilkinson has interviewed a wide array of experts -- priests, psychologists, doctors, even victims of demonic possession -- including some pretty impressive names, from Fr. Gabriel Amorth, the most prominent exorcist in Rome, to the controversial (and recently excommunicated) Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia. She provides a thorough account of the rite's history, tracing it back to Christ in the Gospels, up through the Middle Ages and Fr. Girolamo Menghi's compendium on demonic possession, to the ritual's decline during the Enlightenment, and forward into present times. She notes the growing trend, particularly among Italian women, toward seeking exorcisms, and makes some attempt to account for this through the growth of the Charismatic movement in the Church, which actively (sometimes theatrically) dramatizes the conflict between good and evil; the papacy of John Paul II, who was an outspoken proponent of exorcism; the high profile of exorcism in popular culture due to films like The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose; and the proliferation of superstition and black magic in Italy. Wilkinson does her best to capture as many different viewpoints on the ritual as she can; she succeeds in showing how broadly attitudes toward exorcism can vary, not only within the Church among orthodox believers, but among medical and psychological professionals as well.

But beyond giving us a lot of interesting facts about exorcism, the book doesn't have much to offer the believing Catholic. For the most part, Wilkinson has her facts straight -- although there are some noticeable errors -- but her lack of an authentically Catholic perspective makes her readings of certain situations a bit muddled and difficult for the discerning reader to accept at face value. Two particular areas in which she lacks precision is the balance between free will and the influence of supernatural forces, and the nature of religious faith itself.

When reading about matters of faith, particularly something like exorcism, which the Church deliberately de-emphasizes in order to discourage morbid curiosity on behalf of the faithful, a Catholic reader needs a clear set of guideposts to aid his interpretation of the data. This is something that Wilkinson cannot provide. Moreover, even her attempt at objectivity is mired by her failure to comprehend the Catholic perspective. For instance, she treats Church teaching on the existence of demons as though it were a policy that could be discarded by any incoming pope. Such misunderstandings make it difficult for the Catholic reader to trust her interpretation of the meticulously gathered facts that make up her study.

Compounding the difficulties of interpretation is the fact that she grants the statements of all her exorcists equal weight. Fr. Amorth, exorcism expert Fr. Gabriele Nanni, and Archbishop Milingo are all treated as authorities in their field. Although Wilkinson is quick to point out Milingo's controversial (and discredited) stature within the Church, she still quotes the excommunicated Archbishop extensively, and even interviews one of the women who went to him for an exorcism. This blurring together of reputable and disreputable sources within the Church does her book a great disservice.

Secular audiences may find The Vatican's Exorcists to be an interesting and eye-opening read -- just as they will likely find comfort in the subtle skepticism that shows through at the book's ending -- but Catholic readers will probably feel shortchanged by Wilkinson's analysis. Like the work of any empiricist, Wilkinson's book nails down the facts, but the truth remains elusive.

- Joe Hemmerling



The Search for Saint Valeria.  By William L. Biersach. Tum­blar Press. 212 pages. $27.95.

Erasmus said that the world is a monastery. But most of us require some physical reminders that Erasmus's comment is in fact true, since a blistery world inevitably muscles us into spiritual torpor. A church often foots the bill, keeping our eyes trained on the holy. In The Search for Saint Valeria, the third installment in the Father Baptist mystery series, William L. Biersach weaves the Catholic life into the encroaching and sometimes frightening ethos of the modern world. Through the persona of Fr. Baptist, a homicide detective turned priest, Biersach energetically transforms the secular profession of the detective, wrapped in all too human details, into a holy office. This rich character attempts to fulfill the tacit challenge of Erasmus's quotation, chartering readers through perplexing crimes, while trying to suffuse the reckless world with the more reaching monastic hue.

The novel begins with the theme that will dominate the novel: relics, and their treatment by those within the Catholic fold. A concerted rage against relics takes shape from the novel's start, and Fr. Baptist is called to the task. With droll humor and Sherlockian cool, Fr. Baptist balances the pathos of pilfered churches with the sober and wry observance of the classic detective. Early in the novel, Fr. Baptist blows up at a detective's general irreverence. As opposed to the officious pietism one might expect, he expresses the smoke of holy and thoughtful wrath. Fr. Baptist compellingly sheds the stereotype of religion as synonymous with mere niceness. He cuts a figure much shrewder and more attractive -- and more akin to the great religious figures, such as St. Bernard with his ample sharpness for friend and foe alike.

This dynamic character lends considerable potential to the framework of the detective novel, but Biersach has given himself a formidable task. As an acknowledged Catholic, he has harnessed his energies, and perhaps animus, to shape a fictional world that gives vent to the parasitic ironies at play in the Catholic Church. He has chosen a genre particularly sympathetic to this goal. The detective is almost divinely endowed with the capacity to discern connections where the average loafer is blind. The mystery genre creates a catholic atmosphere, in which disparate facts are skillfully knitted to an intelligible bedrock. As Sherlock Holmes famously reports: “You have not observed. And yet you have seen….I have both seen and observed.” It is the peculiar job of the detective to see logical connections that pass the majority by and almost beggar the imagination, so that Dr. Watson reasonably replies: “You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.” As these words reflect, the mystery framework is particularly adaptable to uncanny, if not religious, themes. Detective novels are wrapped in this connection-inducing ethos. The detec­tive's job is one of seeing, as if those Pauline mirrors (1 Cor. 13:12) could be penetrated by a privileged few.

In addition to conveying a sense of pattern amidst a modern world blown full of endless, often incoherent variety, Biersach attempts to particularize these patterns of meaningfulness even further. As his chapter headings (which correlate the fictional days of the novel to the Catholic calendar) demonstrate, Biersach wants to step beyond even the arduous sense of coherence the skillful author can achieve and deliver a Catholic sense of meaningfulness. This endeavor is natural and perhaps even noble, but it is unusual in the literary tradition.

And it is here, in part, where Biersach loses his fictional footing. Biersach assumes that his reader shares the assumptions of his main characters concerning the Catholic life, as well as the importance of icons; but he has assumed too much, even among a Catholic audience. A fictional account about relics should introduce the reader to a new energy toward these mysterious objects. The devotee of relics must leave this work as hungry as the outsider for a greater understanding of iconography. How these curious objects mingle with the world and imbue it with mystery and life is left unanswered, and more importantly, unfelt. Biersach abandons the reader sincerely interested in why the preservation of relics is such a vital pursuit, one toward which his characters have spent so much energy and angst. Biersach never offers more than tenuous, self-assured suggestions about what has led to this current state of the Church and the maltreatment of her icons.

G.K. Chesterton was instinctu­ally observant about what a piece of fiction allows in terms of instruction, given his great aptitude for apologetics. In his Father Brown mystery series, Chesterton effectively, because subtly, laces Catholicism into the detecting mechanism. In “The Insoluble Problem,” as with many of Chesterton's stories, icons play a central role. However, he never assumes that his reader has a thriving relationship with relics. He spends his energy proving how the phenomenon of relics, and their desecration, emerges in all walks of life. But Chesterton does not leave it to his reader to side with his iconographic views. He shows the power of relics at the human level. It is then left to the reader to infer, with Chesterton's prompting, the power of icons at a level that merges with religion more properly.

Biersach has picked up on a genre that could nudge one to a greater appreciation of Erasmus's insight, as well as a greater appreciation for the role of icons, but it is a genre in which he fails to deliver.

- Bradford Manderfield





Back to January 2008 Issue