Dispatch from the Spiritual Battlefront
Diary of an American Exorcist: Demons, Possession, and the Modern-Day Battle against Ancient Evil
By Stephen J. Rossetti
Publisher: Sophia Institute Press
Review Author: Christopher Beiting
“There’s an app for that” is now a common refrain and one relevant to Diary of an American Exorcist. The book’s author, Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, and his team at the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal in Washington, D.C., offer a plethora of resources on exorcism and deliverance ministry at their website, CatholicExorcism.org, and yes, an app is available, too. Taken in toto, the work of the St. Michael Center provides a fascinating answer to one of the Church’s perennial problems regarding the practice of exorcism.
On one hand, the Church — very rightly — treats exorcisms as closed affairs: to guard the privacy of those involved, to avoid turning the sacramental into a circus, and to protect untrained onlookers from spiritual harm. On the other hand, the exorcisms performed by Our Lord and His Apostles in the New Testament were all done in public, and all had a mission function: to show nonbelievers in the most direct way possible that Our Lord was who He said He was by demonstrating His power over Satan and the fallen angels.
The St. Michael Center harmonizes these two attitudes toward exorcism. It allows exorcists to work in peace and privacy but also provides a weekly witness to their activity. Msgr. Rossetti’s blog and this book, which has come from it, read like a series of dispatches from the front lines in the ongoing war against evil. For many Catholics, exorcism seems an outmoded, primitive, and fundamentally medieval practice. Rossetti and his team, to their credit, have succeeded in presenting exorcism in a way perfectly suited to a 21st-century audience.
Given the surfeit of books on exorcism, why is this one of interest? In a nutshell, Diary of an American Exorcist is a compilation of 95 entries from Rossetti’s Exorcist Diary blog. To one who asks, “Well, why buy the book? Can’t I just read these on the St. Michael Center website?” there are two replies. One is that these are older blog entries that no longer appear on the website. The other is that the book’s Theological Reflections provide analysis of or information on aspects of exorcism, evil, and Christ’s redemption from a solidly Catholic perspective. These reflections add depth and background, and they demonstrate Rossetti’s intellectual acumen. Although the diary entries and the Theological Reflections are each short, clear, and easy to read, Rossetti is no lightweight. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he holds three master’s degrees and two doctorates, and he is currently a licensed psychologist as well as an instructor at the Catholic University of America. (He’s also chaplain of the Washington Nationals baseball team.)
It is difficult to present encounters with the demonic in a balanced way, and attempts to do so often go to one of two extremes. First is the horror-movie approach, exemplified by a number of films that followed in the wake of Hollywood’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestseller The Exorcist. These rely on splashy special effects to present demons as horrific, overwhelming, and terrifying, and exorcisms as desperate battles the exorcists might not win. The second is the minimizing approach, which downplays the total evil of demons and can make them out to be misunderstood or even comic. The character of Crowley, a demon who’s really not all that bad, in the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman novel (and miniseries) Good Omens is an example. Not even a spiritual genius like C.S. Lewis could quite escape this shortcoming in his otherwise exemplary The Screwtape Letters.
Msgr. Rossetti, however, avoids both these extremes by allowing the reader to see demons as they are: spiteful, proud, vicious, sadistic, impulsive, delusional, and hate-filled. Through hundreds upon hundreds of exorcisms, Rossetti has learned that demons are incapable of love, kindness, mercy, friendship, or inner peace. During one exorcism, Rossetti told a new team member, “I want you to know what you are dealing with.” Addressing the demon in the possessed person, he asked, “If you could, would you knife every person here in the back, twist the knife, and laugh?” Grudgingly, the demon replied, “Yes.” Another interesting exchange is worth quoting in full. Rossetti writes:
I was in the midst of an exorcism recently, and the demons were suffering greatly as a result of the prayers. I commanded them to answer, “Did you make a bad choice in rejecting God?”
The answer came back reluctantly: “Yes.”
I then asked, “Are you suffering because of it?”
Again the reluctant response: “Yes.”
I concluded with the question, “So would you change your choice if you could?”
They answered, “No.”
It is difficult for Christians to believe that there are beings out there who have no good in them at all, and who are that way forever, but such is the reality of demons. If God did not restrain them at every turn, they would utterly destroy us. (He does restrain them; for all their threat and bluster, no demon can kill or do serious harm to a human.) And it is a mark of Msgr. Rossetti’s nobility that he has, over time, learned to let go of his hatred of demons. Demons are forces of hate, and when we hate, we become like them. Even God does not hate these creatures, for He made them good and still remembers what they once were, in contrast to what they have become. Rossetti wonders whether the very existence of Hell, which seems so unbelievable to so many Christians today, is actually a sign of God’s love for even the worst of the worst. If His mere presence burns them like fire — which it does — it is an act of compassion for Him to confine them to a place in the cosmos where He is not.
Diary of an American Exorcist is about not just the reality of evil but the ability of evil to act directly in the world. Here Rossetti refers to the reality of curses and cursed objects. People, especially those involved in the occult, really do have the ability to cause harm to others, or to produce objects that do. Of course, it is not the people themselves who have this ability but the demons whose aid they have employed, wittingly or unwittingly. Most rationalists — indeed, most Catholics (myself included, until fairly recently) — have long downplayed or denied this reality. But if I believe that the scapular I wear or the rosary with which I pray is more efficacious for having had a priest call down the power of God to bless it, it is not illogical to believe that an object of evil can be rendered more efficacious for having the power of a demon called down upon it to curse it. Rossetti and his team have had a number of cases of people becoming possessed by joining groups of witches, neopagans, or Satanists. Later, they seek deliverance not just from demonic possession but from their former cults, and these exorcisms tend to be the hardest, due to the difficulty of getting people to renounce the diabolical powers they once wielded.
Belief in the powers of witchcraft seems like something that should have perished in the 17th century, but Msgr. Rossetti and his colleagues are at pains to remind us that sorcery can be something very real and very deadly (the St. Michael Center’s website and the Catholic Exorcism app both include instructions for the safe disposal of cursed objects). On the upside, while this can seem like something scary, it is important to remember that Christians in a state of grace have nothing to worry about in this regard. “We get cursed all the time,” maintains Rossetti. “They just bounce right off of us.” But how many Catholics, let alone how many Christians, are committed to living in a state of grace these days?
Perhaps the strangest aspect of exorcism in the 21st century has to do with technology. “Demons love tech, just like adolescents,” notes Msgr. Rossetti. Cases of possession or oppression can involve diabolical manipulation of electrical appliances, such as lights, televisions, or phones. This usually manifests as a malfunction. For example, clients trying to contact exorcists via phone or computer might sometimes find their devices not working correctly. Cellphones seem to be of particular interest to demons. Rossetti mentions several times the phenomenon of exorcists’ receiving actual text messages from demons. In some cases, the mechanism for these is obvious: Rossetti recounts when a friend of someone being exorcised walked into a room and saw a “phone sitting face up and the keys typing messages by themselves.” In other cases, Rossetti and other exorcists have received repeated text messages from no verifiable source, texts insulting them, taunting them, or revealing details of ongoing exorcisms. It seems that demons can, and do, send texts!
It seems foolish of demons to reveal themselves so blatantly, but Msgr. Rossetti and other exorcists credit this to the narcissism and arrogance that are part of demons’ fallen nature. Far from being a terrifying experience, demonic text messages appear to be welcomed by exorcists, in a “if you’re taking flak, you’re over the target” sort of way. The typical response to such an event is to fire a Hail Mary or other prayer right back at the sender, which usually makes the threatening messages stop. (I greatly dislike cellphones, refuse to use them, and have long maintained that they are an invention of the Devil. I thank Rossetti for providing abundant empirical evidence for my supposition!)
Msgr. Rossetti reflects on the condition of the United States these past few years. Anyone with any sense can tell something is deeply wrong with our country, and our author concurs. “If one were to assess our country as a whole right now, there are strong signs that our country is demonically oppressed,” he notes. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend: a significant decline in the practice of the faith, matched by a rise in occultism, paganism, and witchcraft. Furthermore, the exceptional level of discord and disagreement in our civil society is a mark of the demonic. Christ brings peace; demons bring discord. The pervasive victim mentality is another troubling sign of the presence of evil (all demons think they’re victims and that their incarceration in Hell is anyone’s fault but their own). The recent attacks on the Church in general, and Church property in particular, are additional signs of demons on the march. One of Rossetti’s team members told him demons simply seem more active, and less restrained, today than ever before. I used to joke that the demons that infested Russia in the 20th century seem to have moved here in the 21st. I am not joking anymore.
The typical American response to any problem is, “What can I do?” The answer in these matters is “Plenty,” depending on your situation. The most important thing to remember when dealing with the diabolical is that humans should never presume to challenge it directly. Only Jesus Christ, who defeated the powers of Hell by His life and His death on the Cross, has any true power over it, and it is only by uniting ourselves to Him that we have any hope in sharing in His power and His victory. Thus, baptized Christians are to invoke the name of Jesus Christ and pray to Him to cast out the Evil One. For those facing the problem of diabolical possession, definitive help is to be gained through the authority Christ extends to His priests and His Church.
Fortunately, the Church has taken seriously the need to resurrect the practice of exorcism and deliverance ministry, and there are a great deal more trained exorcists out there than there used to be. Moreover, if Msgr. Rossetti and his colleagues are any example, these exorcists appear to be in frequent communication with one another and are working hard to increase their knowledge and refine their craft. But what can you do if there is no exorcist in your diocese, or if you face a preternatural problem that does not require the attention of an exorcist? As baptized Christians, we are all priests, prophets, and kings in one way or another, and even we have some powers which Our Lord shares with us. Though ordinary laymen cannot perform a solemn exorcism over someone who is fully possessed (that is reserved for a diocesan-approved priest-exorcist), we nevertheless do have authority over certain things, and we can invoke Our Lord’s power in the areas under our rightful purview. “Laity have authority over their own bodies,” Rossetti reminds us, “and can command demons to leave them in Jesus’ name.” Our bodies are ours, and with the Lord’s help, we can fight to protect them. We can do likewise with the things over which we have legitimate authority, such as our homes and possessions. Lastly, parents have a special power, which most of us do not realize. All parents have God-given authority to pray over and bless their children. As such, “parents can command demons to leave their children,” Rossetti notes (emphasis his), although he advises that it is wiser for parents to seek expert assistance before invoking this power.
Besides extraordinary measures like these, what can we ordinary Catholics do to protect ourselves from preternatural evil? The answer is simple: Be Catholic. Live in a state of grace. Take Holy Communion frequently and faithfully. Go to Confession as often as possible, monthly at least. Make frequent use of sacramentals, with holy water being one of the most important and the Rosary being the most important. Try as hard as possible to purge yourself of hatred of anyone or anything. (Msgr. Rossetti recommends saying one Hail Mary any time we find ourselves hating someone — and measuring ourselves by how many extra Hail Marys we find ourselves saying.)
Lastly, those Catholics who are living in a state of grace and want to assist the efforts of exorcists worldwide might consider joining the Auxilium Christianorum movement (AuxiliumChristianorum.org) and saying their daily prayers. And, yes, “there’s an app for that” too.
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