November 2009By Arthur C. Sippo
Arthur C. Sippo is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over 30 years. He writes from southern Illinois.
The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. By Matt Baglio. Doubleday. 304 pages. $24.95.
In the ministry of Jesus, exorcism of people who were possessed and tormented by evil spirits was of prime importance. It demonstrated the power that Jesus Christ commanded, as did the other miracles He performed; but more importantly it showed that He had unopposed authority even over the demonic spiritual powers who openly defied the rule of God. With a mere word from Christ, the demons were routed, as in Matthew 9:33, 11:18, 15:22, 17:18. In one instance (Mt. 8:28-32), the demons brought their possessed victims to Him in order to submit to Him before Jesus had the chance to find them and cast them out. The ministry of exorcism was critically important in establishing Jesus' authority as the true Lord of all creation.
When Jesus sent His Apostles and disciples out to preach in His name, He shared with them not only His gift of healing and the power to forgive sins, He also gave them "authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out" (Mt. 10:1). This was not a sacerdotal act or a miraculous power -- it was the very authority of God over His Kingdom proclaimed through the ministers He had consecrated to Himself. Those who were authorized by Christ through holy orders to teach and to sanctify His Church were also empowered to rule over it. This means that they can lay claim to the lives of all human beings for whom Christ has died, and can foil even the demonic principalities and powers that seek to snatch the elect from the Father's hand.
One of the great modernist assaults on the Christian faith has been the denial that the demonic even exists. This was at first proposed to free men from the fear of "darkness and old night," and to proclaim that the good God existed unopposed by any demonic power. This notion was also more acceptable to the modern secular mindset, which questions the very existence of demonic powers and the supernatural. But it was a critical break with the faith proclaimed in the Gospels and with the experience of the Catholic Church throughout the ages. Ultimately, when the existence of Satan is denied, there is no real need for salvation. If all of creation is good, then embracing the merely natural is all that is needed to follow God. Soon God is pantheistically identified with the world, and the critical Creator/creature distinction necessary for sanctifying grace is eliminated. Consequently, with the modernizations in the Church after Vatican II, the practice of exorcisms dropped off. In many places, dioceses did not have any priests trained to perform the Rite of Exorcism.
In recent years, while the world has strayed far from the worldview of the New Testament and its cosmic battle between God and Satan, true demonic activity, which had been largely banished in Christian societies, has been slowly resurfacing. Occult preoccupations and practices are reintroduced under the aegis of the "New Age movement," and with them an increasing number of cases of demonic possession. Reports began filtering out of Italy in the past decade, and there has been a similar upsurge around the world. It had become so serious a problem that Pope John Paul II had spoken openly of the problem and of the need to formally train exorcists for dioceses around the world.
The new book The Rite by Rome-based reporter Matt Baglio follows the studies of Fr. Gary Thomas, a priest and pastor from California who was sent on sabbatical by his bishop in 2006 to attend the exorcist training program given in Rome at the Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum. Baglio describes Fr. Thomas's experiences in the program and also at the various exorcisms Fr. Thomas was able to attend in the city of Rome. The book is written informally and is filled with solid, orthodox Catholic teaching distilled to a level accessible to the popular American reader. Baglio reviews the history of exorcisms in recent times and quotes relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with other good resources. He also delves into psychiatric issues and gives a brief but enlightening review of recent scientific findings about multiple-personality disorders relevant to the topic of demonic possession.
In any such book, the author is always tempted to use sensationalism to whet the prurient appetite of a reading public that feeds on such mass-distributed products as The Exorcist, Harry Potter, Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, and other adventure fiction that deals with witches, demons, and spirits. Even books written for a primarily religious market, such as Hostage to the Devil and Windswept House by Fr. Malachi Martin, include sensationalistic material. Happily, Baglio avoids sensationalism but still manages to hold our interest. There are always bizarre elements in cases of demonic possession that are evidence of supernatural activity. For the most part, these elements are subtle and disturbing rather than melodramatic. People undergo personality changes, start grunting like animals, curse sacred things, and try to demoralize the exorcist by telling him how ineffective his prayers are. These symptoms would make mediocre fare for a motion-picture thriller but could be the subject of a more subdued dramatic study.
Even so, there are some things described by Baglio that do seem like set pieces from an old horror movie. Many possessed subjects will apparently release artifacts from their bodies that reflect the state or cause of their possession. Some of these artifacts are solid and remain so, such as keys, carpenter's nails, pins, needles, and bolts. Other recognizable artifacts may be ejected along with physical effluvia only to vanish minutes later. Then there are the not-unusual phenomena of the possessed demonstrating great physical strength, telepathic abilities, psychokinesis, and speaking a language the victim does not know.
The actual Rite of Exorcism is not very dramatic and will disappoint those who were expecting projectile pea soup, rotating heads, extreme physical manifestations, and verbal duels between the exorcist and the demon. The exorcist reads prayers and Scriptures from the approved ritual in the presence of the possessed. Sometimes the possessed needs to be restrained by relatives, friends, or assistants of the exorcist. The possessed usually remains seated and might or might not react verbally to the ritual. The exorcist is advised not to engage the demon in conversation except in certain circumstances -- it is permitted when the exorcist asks the demon's name or calls on the demon to leave the afflicted in peace. To do much more than this gives the demon a bully pulpit from which he can attack and attempt to demoralize the exorcist and those helping him.
Exorcism is not a sacrament, so it does not function ex opere operato. The prayers for deliverance from spiritual oppression and possession may need to be repeated for many years, and the victim may not be freed entirely from demonic influence. Likewise, exorcism is not something that a lone priest or layman can perform on his own. It is an exercise of the Church's authority and so it is necessary that the ritual be performed only with the local bishop's permission, using the precise form prescribed by the Church. Standing on one's own against Satan is foolhardy and dangerous. It is a serious violation of Church law.
A traditional Rite of Exorcism in the Western Church had been in use for many centuries. It was always recited in Latin, the sacred language of the Roman Rite. It was believed by many exorcists that the use of this rite in Latin was most effective. A new Rite of Exorcism was developed after Vatican II and has undergone several revisions. The new rite can be performed in the vernacular and has several alternative parts. At the present time, exorcists in Italy have been using both the old and the new rites, judging for themselves which one would be most appropriate in particular cases.
It is interesting to note that in certain circumstances the Blessed Virgin Mary can be called on to intercede. The demons respond to her name with fear and loathing, and in some cases the possessed person may see visions of Jesus, Mary, or other saints during the ritual. The Scriptures promised that Mary would crush Satan's head and that he would live in fear of her heel (Gen. 3:15). The experience of exorcists seems to confirm this.
Demonic possession is still a major front in the war for souls between God and Satan. Baglio's book does not lose sight of this. The Rite is thoroughly orthodox and conforms to Catholic teaching. It is both interesting and informative, and it stands to help people understand the very real demonic problems in our world as the Catholic Church understands them. It might encourage some unfortunate souls to seek help they would otherwise not know exists. One hopes it will also encourage priests and bishops to take deliverance ministry seriously and to make use of it when it is necessary.
Delivering the world from demonic powers has always been the mission of the Catholic Church -- a mission never more important than today.
DOSSIER: Spiritual Warfare & the Problem of Evil