Viewpoint: Exorcism is an ongoing feature of Christian life

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

One of the questions that I – like most priests – am asked every now and then is whether I have ever performed an exorcism.  For the sake of simplicity, I  answer, “no” – at least not in the sense in which people understand exorcism from movies like “The Exorcist 1” and “The Exorcist 2” – and more recently, “The Rite.”

But the truth, of course, is that I and all parish priests have performed exorcisms—and quite often.  In fact, many worshipers have witnessed them.  Indeed, they may be surprised to learn that they themselves were exorcised at baptism.

While more dramatic kinds of exorcisms do take place – rarely – and require the authorization of church authorities and the use of a formal ritual, the kind of exorcism I have in mind is very different.

The practice of exorcism in the simple sense is a basic part of Christian life and a process that is at work in all our lives whether we know it or not. During the process by which adults are prepared of baptism, Confirmation, and the eucharist at the Easter Vigil prayers of exorcism (scrutinies) are offered during the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent.

In the most basic and authentic Christian sense, exorcism is not a bizarre, esoteric, or magical act. It has little to do with what one sees in the sensationalized movies I just mentioned..  Exorcism is the very ordinary yet powerful process by which the Spirit of Christ is invoked upon men and women so that they may leave behind all that is evil, destructive and dehumanizing, and come to live a new existence in Christ.

In simple exorcisms, the spirit of evil is cast out so that the Spirit of God may enter.  In this sense,  exorcism is the flip side of the invocation of the Holy Spirit.  Whenever the bishop or priest lays his hands upon someone in any sacrament or rite and invokes the Holy Spirit, the spirit of evil is, by that very fact, being exorcised.  The exorcism of evil  and the invocation of the Holy Spirit form an ongoing, life-long process pervading every authentic aspect of our Christian existence.

Words from Paul to the Ephesians are instructive here. The reading is, without mentioning the word, a call to exorcism. Paul writes:

“Do nothing to sadden the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed against the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind.  In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ. Be imitators of God as his dear children.  Follow the way of  love”  (4: 30-32).

According to Paul, the spirit of the evil  one manifests itself in lives in bitterness, anger, harsh words, slander, malice. To be in the power of the devil is to be overcome by the love of money, lawless passions, enmity and quarreling and every kind of evil.  We know how these can possess us and take over our lives, producing all kinds of evil.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, by contrast, expresses itself,  according to Paul, in kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love.  It signifies itself in a spirit of reverence, patience, hope, temperance, purity of heart, charity and peace.

We should not be afraid to speak of exorcism in Christian conversation or be embarrassed by it – any more than we are embarrassed by the notion of the invocation of the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, we need to rehabilitate the concept of exorcism as a fruitful and rich reality of Christian life.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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3 comments

  1. This is a timely and sensible piece by Mgr. Mannion.

    We get occasional reports in my Diocese of ‘healing’ and ‘deliverance’ events which seem to have little to do with the primary means of H and D which are the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Penance and Anointing.

    ‘Exorcism’ is widely misunderstood and over dramatised, not only by Hollywood but even by some legitimate exorcists themselves. Such presentations lead to unhealthy interest and unrealistic, even fantastical, expectations.

    Most priests, I am sure, know that faced with a claim of haunting or spiritual malaise, the first remedy is to pray with the person concerned. In most cases that will be sufficient. You start at the bottom of the scale and, if necessary, work up. The role of doctors and psychiatric experts must also, if appropriate, be sought.

    Our Bishops need to exercise their authority as High Priests and regulators of ministry, and make it clear that neither the Church’s sacraments nor for that matter the interventions of health professionals should be compromised or set aside by ‘ministries’ which do not in fact act legitimately in the name of Christ and his Church.

    AG.

  2. The traditional taxonomy of world, flesh, and devil does not present us with three absolutely independent influences – the devil might, e.g., seek to trick us into dropping important guards against our own disordered passion. But it is one thing to admit mutual influence, and quite another to collapse the distinctions altogether, which I worry this article does. Some inducements to sin come from outside ourselves; others proceed from the depths of the fallen human heart. Failure to diagnose the cause of our disease could very well prevent effective treatment. Exorcism targets the influence of evil spirits – intelligent agents, thrones and principalities – who hold us in bondage through fear, blandishment, or deceit (to name a few strategies). But fallen humanity is perfectly capable of choosing sin without diabolical encouragement. If one’s god is Moloch, exorcism is an appropriate countermeasure. If one’s god is one’s belly, exorcism will do little good. No amount of exorcism will free us from ourselves.

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