Exorcism is only one tool in church’s struggle against evil

November 21, 2010
by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Greetings from Baltimore, where I am attending the annual meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Prior to our general meetings of all the bishops of our country, I participated in a seminar on “The Liturgical and Pastoral Practice of Exorcism.” I actually helped to organize this seminar acting in my capacity as chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. The reason that this comes under the purview of our committee is the requirement that a priest needs the permission of his diocesan bishop before he can perform the rite of exorcism. The purpose of the seminar then was to provide some guidance for bishops to assist in their determination of when such permission should or should not be given.

There has been a great deal of interest in this seminar. Over one hundred bishops and priests attended. I have received numerous media inquiries about the exorcism seminar and have done interviews with Catholic News Service, Our Sunday Visitor, Associated Press, The New York Times, Good Morning America, the British Broadcasting Company, Relevant Radio, Ave Maria/EWTN Radio, and the National Catholic Register. So what is going on here?

First of all, this is not some emergency or crisis of a surge in cases of people being possessed by the demons. The fact is that I cannot recall any official training being offered to bishops or priests here in the United States on this topic. There are conferences offered occasionally in Rome, but it is not practical or easy for large numbers of priests to travel to Italy to attend such conferences. The result is that there is only a small number of priests in the United States who have any expertise in this subject matter, so they wind up getting inquiries from all over the country. In fairness, every diocese should have its own expertise in this area, so I brought with me some priests from our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. It is important that we work together as a team on these matters since it is never prudent to face the Devil alone.

What, or who, precisely is the Devil? A devil is a fallen angel, that is, a spiritual being created by God with a free will who has freely chosen to reject God and to embrace evil. The Devil, Satan or Lucifer, is the leader of other fallen angels who are known as devils or demons.

What is demonic or diabolical possession? Well, it’s not contagious! You don’t have to worry about being invaded and taken over by a devil against your will. But that is the key: possession is a relationship between a human being and a devil or demons to which the human person has opened a door through freely embracing evil, dabbling in the occult, or participating in satanic rituals and the like. The remedy for diabolical possession is an exorcism. Since diabolical possession is rare, the remedy of a solemn rite of exorcism is also rare.

We need to keep in mind that diabolical possession is not the only work of the Devil. Since it is extraordinary and rare, we must recognize the ordinary and usual way that the Devil operates, namely, by temptation. We face the Devil’s temptations everyday when confronted with choices between doing good or evil, right or wrong. The remedy for this ordinary activity of the Devil is the ordinary spiritual means offered by the church, namely, the sacraments, especially reconciliation and holy Communion, prayers, fasting, charitable works, devotions, rosaries and blessings. Going to confession and receiving sacramental absolution from a priest is more powerful than an exorcism!

Determining whether a person is actually subject to the extraordinary activity of the Devil through possession is a process called discernment. Before resorting to the supernatural remedy of exorcism, it is necessary to eliminate all natural explanations for the problematic behavior or activity. What this means is that the person in need of assistance should undergo a complete medical examination and a psychiatric or psychological evaluation. Prayers of deliverance from evil can also be very beneficial in helping people who are struggling with evil influences but who may not actually be possessed. Those who wish more information about this ministry in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois can contact Msgr. Carl Kemme, Vicar General.

Pope Paul VI gave an address to a General Audience on Nov. 15, 1972, in which he said, “What are the church’s greatest needs at the present time? Don’t be surprised at our answer and don’t write it off as simplistic or even superstitious: one of the church’s greatest needs is to be defended against the evil we call the Devil. … It is a departure from the picture provided by biblical church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the Devil’s existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.”

One of the most powerful spiritual weapons that we have in our battle with the Devil is the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. I encourage its frequent use: “St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all other evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”

May God give us this grace. Amen.

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