February 25, 2011


The Rite and exorcisms

Yes, the Catholic Church believes in the devil, and it believes in diabolical possession is possible. It has the rite of exorcism, and priests trained to perform it when it appears certain that possession has occurred and not a mental illness alone.

We mention this now because of the new movie The Rite, which opened in theaters on Jan. 28. It is fiction, but is based on the non-fiction book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio.

The book is about the experiences of Father Gary Thomas, a priest in the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., while he was being trained as an exorcist in Rome. The movie stars actors Anthony Hopkins as a veteran exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as a young transitional deacon training to be an exorcist.

Father Thomas has said that the book is all true, but the movie took some license for plot development. It has its sensationalist moments, but definitely not like the 1973 movie The Exorcist.

Father Thomas and Baglio were advisers for the movie. In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father Thomas said, “It’s a movie about faith, and not how we can scare people. I was on the set to give some direction on the exorcism scenes, and they are very accurate and very true to life for the most part. The prayers and dialogue between Hopkins and my character are much more in sync with the teaching of the Church.”

The movie was released a bit more than two months after the U.S. bishops sponsored a two-day exorcism training on Nov. 12-13. The fact that it was attended by 56 bishops and 66 priests shows that there is a definite interest in the subject.

Canon law specifies that priests must get permission from their bishops and receive proper training before they can perform exorcisms. Few priests have received that training. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, told Catholic News Service last November that he knew of five or six exorcists in the United States. The movie has a printed line at its end that says there are 14 exorcists in the United States. Our Sunday Visitor said that there are about 50, but it doesn’t cite a source for that number.

Father Vincent Lampert, the pastor of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood, is the archdiocese’s official exorcist. He was quoted in the above-mentioned book and was trained alongside Father Thomas in Rome.

Both Bishop Paprocki and Father Thomas emphatically stress that a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the individual thought to be possessed must be undertaken. Physical and psychological exams must be made. Father Thomas said that most of the time people actually have mental health issues or might not be taking the proper medication.

“The last thing an exorcist does is an exorcism,” he said.

In an interview with The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., Bishop Paprocki explained that possession is the relationship between a human and a devil or demons “freely entered into. A person wants what the devil offers. The relationship goes bad, and the person wants out. But the devil says, ‘You invited me in—it’s not going to be that easy getting out.’ Exorcism helps that person renounce that relationship with the devil.”

Signs of possible demonic possession might include speaking in a language the individual doesn’t know; scratching, cutting, biting of the skin; profound display of strength; sleeplessness; lack of appetite; aversion to anything holy, such as mentioning the name of Jesus or Mary, or the act of praying; and strong or violent reaction to holy water. The movie depicts these signs.

If it is determined that demoniac possession has indeed taken place, the rite of exorcism is conducted in a church or another holy place or in the individual’s home where family members can be present. Sometimes the rite must be repeated over a period of months or even years.

Holy water, a crucifix, relics of saints and blessed salt are all part of the exorcism rite. It also includes the reading of psalms and passages from the Gospels, the litany of the saints and other prayers. Some of the prayers ask God to intervene while others command the demon to leave the possessed person.

—John F. Fink

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