On Sept. 21, 1,600 people gathered outside Oklahoma’s Civic Center Music Hall to protest the satanic ritual of a Black Mass that the city officials had permitted. Inside, 42 people attended the blasphemy. A few months before, a similar event was cancelled at Harvard University in response to the great outcry from believers. Recent times have witnessed an increased fascination with the devil.
Throughout the world, the decline in faith and the rise of interest in the occult have fomented a climate that favors the phenomenon of demonic possession. As more and more people abandon the practice of the faith, they satisfy their innate desire for the other-worldly with alternate forms of spirituality that open them to the influence of the evil spirits.
As a result, requests for exorcisms have dramatically risen within the last decade. In May of this year, 200 delegates from around the world took part in the ninth annual conference on exorcism in Rome. Psychiatrists, priests, sociologists, religious and doctors approached the reality of evil from their own area of expertise.
The reality of the devil belongs to the bedrock of Christian tradition. Even a casual reading of the New Testament brings the reader face to face with the devil. Within the gospel tradition, casting out the devil (exorcism) stands out as one of the miracles Jesus most frequently performed. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, exorcisms are the largest number of healings Jesus worked (cf. Mk 1:21-8; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; and 9:14-29).
So integral to the ministry of Jesus were his exorcisms that, when the gospel writers wish simply to summarize his ministry, they include his exorcisms (cf. Mk 1:32-4, 39, 3:11; Lk 7:21 and 13:32). Even non-Christian exorcists found Jesus’ name effective to cast out the devil (cf. Mk 9:38-41; Acts 19:13-20). And, Jesus’ opponents, recognizing the fact of his exorcisms, tried to disparage him by saying that he was in league with Satan himself (cf. Mk 3:21). So grounded in history was the memory of Jesus’ casting out the devil that even the rabbis remembered it (cf. Sanhedrin, 43a ).
Jesus shared his work with his disciples. “He summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Mt 10:1; cf. Mk 3:15). And they did. They went about “casting out many demons and … anointing with oil many sick people and healing them” (Mk 6:13). At Philippi, Paul himself cast out a demon from a slave girl (cf. Acts 16:16-18).
Thus, from her very beginning, the Church continued Jesus’ mission of casting out the devil, of rescuing the world from the powers of darkness and ushering in the kingdom of God. And the Church continues this work in our day. Through the preaching of the Word, through the celebration of the sacraments and, on occasion, through the rite of exorcism, the Church makes real in our day the victory of Christ over the devil.
Many welcome Pope Francis as the reformer bent on clearing the cobwebs of tradition that hinder people’s access to the mercy of God. They praise him for his efforts to bring the Church into step with our modern society. It is not surprising, therefore, that, when the pope does not fit this profile, his remarks are passed over in silence by the media. Surely, such a thoroughly modern pontiff could not possibly believe in the devil as a reality. But, he does!
Pope Francis has spoken of the devil in stronger terms and more frequently than any of his recent predecessors. He calls him “the tempter” and “the father of lies.” And, he does not hesitate to affirm his personal reality. He has said, “In this generation, like so many others, people have been led to believe that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil. But the devil exists and we must fight against him” (Oct. 30, 2014).
One way of fighting the devil, is the Rite of Exorcism. In a vote of 179 “yes” to 5 “no,” the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Nov. 11 approved an English translation of the Rite of Exorcism that was published by the Holy See in 1999. The Church takes seriously the existence of the devil. Nonetheless, she insists that any request for an exorcism must be carefully evaluated by doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and competently trained priests. They are to discern whether the symptoms of possession are the result of a medical or psychological problem or are signs of the devil. They should always look for a natural cause before looking into a supernatural cause of the symptoms.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, an exorcism is a prayer of the Church, in the person of an exorcist, who 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” (1673). Like any other prayer, it needs, at times, to be repeated. It is not magic. It is the Church imploring God to come to the aid of the person afflicted.
As Pope Francis teaches, the devil is real. Evil is real. And, every individual needs to confront the power of evil and move away from the spiritual dominion of the devil. In extraordinary circumstances, the Church allows the Rite of Exorcism to be used to combat the devil. But, this does not exempt all the faithful from engaging each day in their own struggle and battle with evil.
In the sacraments, the Church offers us a most effective means to share in Christ’s victory over the devil. In Baptism, the Church implores God to cast out the power of the devil from the individual about to be baptized and to usher that person into the kingdom of light. By Christ’s power in the Sacrament of Penance, the priest forgives sins and casts out the power of evil. And, most especially, in the Eucharist, worthily received, Christ himself becomes present, casting out evil, protecting us and strengthening us with grace in our struggle with evil. Exorcism is a sacramental. Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance are sacraments instituted by Christ. These are the ordinary means given to us to prevail in the battle against evil and thus, through Christ’s victory over Satan, come to share more fully in the life of God.