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US bishops seek to boost number of exorcists

A crucifix used by American priest Fr Gary Thomas in performing an exorcism (CNS photo/Don Feria)

Bishops in America are sponsoring a two-day conference on exorcism in response to a growing interest in the rite and because of a shortage of trained exorcists nationwide.

The Conference on the Liturgical and Pastoral Practice of Exorcism, on November 12-13, will be attended by 56 bishops and 66 priests.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, said he knew of perhaps five or six exorcists in the United States. They are overwhelmed with requests to perform the rite, he said.

“There’s this small group of priests who say they get requests from all over the continental US,” Bishop Paprocki said.

“Actually, each diocese should have its own resource [person]. It shouldn’t be that this burden should be placed on a priest when his responsibility is for his own diocese,” he said.

Under canon law – Canon 1172 specifically – only those priests who get permission from their bishops can perform an exorcism after proper training.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that an exorcism occurs when the Church, in the person of an exorcist, asks “publicly and authoritatively” in Christ’s name “that a person or object be protected against the power of the evil one and withdrawn from his dominion”.

At baptism, the rite is performed in a simple form. A solemn or major exorcism, according to the catechism, “is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted in his Church”.

Scripture contains several examples of Jesus casting out evil spirits from people.

Bishop Paprocki said: “We don’t think that’s poetic metaphor.”

The conference will encompass the spiritual, the theological and the practical. Speakers include Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, who will discuss the scriptural basis of evil. Fr Dennis McManus, an assistant to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and Fr Jeffrey Grob, pastor of St Celestine Church in Elmwood Park, Ill, also will lead sessions.

Fr Grob said he would review diocesan protocol in the appointment of an exorcist as well as what canon law says about the rite. He will also offer recommendations on how to evaluate an individual to determine if an exorcism is necessary.

Bishop Paprocki said that despite the many requests for an exorcism, the actual number of people possessed by a demon is far fewer than people fear.

The rite is considered a sacramental, which canon law describes as a sacred sign “by which effects, especially spiritual effects, are signified in some imitation of the sacraments and are obtained through the intercession of the Church”. The rite rarely is as dramatic as portrayed in movies and popular media, Bishop Paprocki said.

Other actions, especially reception of the sacraments, can drive out the devil as well, he added.

“The sacrament of penance is much more powerful than an exorcism,” the bishop explained. “The work of the devil is much more regular and our response to that should be rather regular. It’s not that you need a special exorcism to deal with the devil.”

Church practice, which was updated in 1999, requires that a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the individual thought to be possessed be undertaken. Physical and psychological exams are conducted. A priest also will examine the person. Family, friends and co-workers may be interviewed.

Bishop Paprocki said: “There’s a lot of preliminary work that has to go in with dealing with the people in terms of assessing what the situation is. We use the principal that we exclude the natural before going to the supernatural level.”

Fr Grob used the image of an onion to explain how the evaluation process works.

“You have to peel away the layers and if there is general demonic activity, it didn’t get there overnight,” he explained. “There’s not an instantaneous change in the person.”

Signs of demonic possession might include:

– Speaking in a language the individual does not 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.

– Strong or violent reaction to holy water.

Once the need for a formal exorcism is determined, the rite is conducted in a private setting such as a church, a holy space if no church is available, or a person’s home, where family members can be present.

Bishop Paprocki said in a case where the possession is deep-seated, it may take more than one performance of the rite over a period of months or even years to dispel the devil.

“We, because of Hollywood, have this kind of exaggerated sense of not only a very dramatic kind of possession, but also a very dramatic kind of exorcism. It ties in with our culture of quick fixes: you do it once and the person is going to be liberated,” he said.

Holy water, a crucifix, relics of saints and blessed salt are part of the exorcism rite.

“The reality is that a full exorcism is a rare thing,” Bishop Paprocki said, “but we still have to have people who know how to do that because the reality is that it’s not unheard of.”

Exorcisms are more common in Europe. Dozens of priests are authorised to perform the rite, especially in Italy, France and Poland.

“It’s not only performed more commonly [in Europe], but a lot less people get excited about it,” Bishop Paprocki said. “It’s not quite as exceptional as we would take it.”