You can’t believe in what is good, holy, and righteous without also believing in things that are evil. I didn’t invent this concept by any means – the ancient Chinese had their Yin and Yang principle – the idea that good and evil are in a constant struggle with each other, and neither can ultimately win because one can’t exist without its counterpart. If there was only good, we wouldn’t know what evil was, and vice versa.
So how do we confront and expel evil when it attacks individual people? Exorcism.
In Father Malachi Martin’s book, Hostage To The Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans (Bantam, 1976) he says, "Evil Spirit is personal, and it is intelligent. It is preternatural, in the sense that it is not of this material world, but it is in this material world. Contemporary life is no exception."
The first mention of exorcism comes in a letter of Pope Cornelius in 253 C.E. The rite of exorcism is taught in seminary to every Catholic priest, though in 1972 it was removed as a separate minor order. To get more insight on what is involved with the rite and the Roman Catholic Church’s view of exorcism, I spoke with a priest at St. Rose of Lima parish in Newtown, Connecticut, who asked that his name be withheld.
"An exorcism is a prayer that is performed over a person to release them from evil," the Father said. "When a Catholic is baptized, you actually go through an exorcism at that time. There’s a prayer that’s asking to protect the person being baptized, and you’re anointed with holy oil — the oil of catechumen. So every person baptized in the Catholic Church is exorcised."
The Catholic Church doesn’t have a monopoly on demon removal by any means. I also spoke with John Zaffis, founder of the Paranormal and Demonology Research Society of New England on the subject of exorcism. Zaffis has been studying the paranormal for more than 30 years and has assisted in over 100 exorcisms from many different religions and denominations. He was featured recently on the Discovery Channel’s Little Lost Souls: Children Possessed?. Though the religions differ, the experience of possession and exorcism is very similar across all faiths.
Zaffis said, "You don’t know what the outcome of the exorcism is going to be – it’s very strong, it’s very powerful. You don’t know if that person’s going to gain an enormous amount of strength, what is going to come through that individual, and being involved, you will also end up paying a price."
Many times the demon will try to attack and attach itself to the priest or minister administering the exorcism. According to Father Martin’s book, the exorcist may get physically hurt by an out-of-control victim, could literally lose his sanity, and even death is possible.
Curiously, the movie The Exorcist, and the William Peter Blatty book the movie was based on, had quite an impact on society’s view of the subject, and the Catholic Church saw a large resurgence of interest in exorcism.
The priest I spoke with recounted, "When the movie The Exorcist came out, it was creating lots of confusion. People were coming to the door constantly telling me they were possessed, and they wanted me to do something about it."
It turns out the torture and torment that was happening to Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist, though extreme, was not too far off from things that can really happen to a victim under possession. Some signs include eyes rolling up into the head, vomiting, stigmata, scratching, cutting, and biting of the skin by unseen forces, a change in voice, speaking in languages unknown to the victim, and other diabolical occurrences.
John Zaffis explains some of the other less obvious signs of possession: "You have a very common thread with this type of thing, no matter what denomination or religion. The person will totally pull away from dealing with their friends, their family – they become very reclusive. They feel like everybody’s out to get them. They can’t sleep, they can’t eat. These are all common threads. They’ll feel like something is continually watching them."
Granted, some of these minor signs could be due to a number of well-documented psychological disorders, such as depression, multiple personalities, schizophrenia, and so on. "Don’t get me wrong, a lot of times mental illness can intertwine in this," Zaffis said. "What’s very important is to be able to weed through and figure out what is exactly happening from the supernatural level. When did all of this start occurring? Have these people been to psychiatrists? Have they been to regular doctors and counseling?"
The actual Roman Catholic exorcism procedure doesn’t have guidelines that are set in stone, but there are some very important procedures to follow up to the actual event. When a believed victim of possession comes forward to their priest for help, the priest will first contact his Bishop. The Bishop will assign the case to the victim’s diocese exorcist – just which priest is the exorcist in each diocese is kept secret.
The exorcist will then start the process of researching the victim to determine if there are actual demons present or if the problem is merely physiological or psychological. The exorcist will ask for medical records, and may even send the alleged victim to medical experts that he knows. Once possession is established, the Bishop will give consent for the exorcism. This consent is critical, because when the exorcist performs the rite, he needs to have the full support of the Church, all the way up to the Pope. The battle is then waged between the demon in the victim and the entire Church itself.
A typical exorcism may happen in the church, but will most likely take place in the victim’s home. To prepare the room for the procedure, most of the furniture will be removed, pictures and other loose items will also be taken away to prevent them from being turned into missiles by supernatural forces, and windows and doors may also be boarded over. In a Catholic ritual, the priest performing the exorcism will most likely be a senior member of the clergy, and he will bring along an apprentice priest who is learning how to perform exorcisms in the future. The victim will be securely tied down, and other assistants, such as family members or friends related to the victim, may also be present in case they are needed to hold the person during violent episodes. The priest will then begin a series of prayers and rituals involving holy water and oils. The actual exorcism can take hours, even days, and sometimes a victim may go through many exorcisms over the course of several years until they are at peace.
John Zaffis talked about one of the more harrowing exorcisms he assisted in: "A little woman – I think she was about five-foot-two, and I don’t think she was 80 pounds soaking wet. They had her in a straitjacket in a pew, and there was a bunch of guys holding her down. This woman went totally under possession – she was able to pull the pew right up, break the restraints, break out of the straitjacket, and push all of the guys away.
"She stood there and spoke with this voice that was just so piercing – it just blew your mind."
Over the last century, there has been a large cultural change – people in general are not as devoutly religious as they used to be. The role that religions play in peoples’ lives is shrinking. More and more people are becoming agnostic or even atheist – so when something diabolical happens, they may not have the spiritual infrastructure and support system necessary to deal with it.
According to John Zaffis, some of the priests and ministers he has dealt with don’t even want to discuss the topic of evil – these clergy don’t teach about evil in their sermons, and some don’t deal with it when it confronts one of their own.
The priest I spoke with concluded, "I certainly believe that spirits exist – I have no doubt about that. We have the Holy Spirit and we also have the evil spirit." Yet this priest wasn’t comfortable enough with the topic to allow his name to be used.
Evil is in the world, and ignoring it does not make it go away. If you are not a believer, dealing with a possession will quickly change your entire perspective. The war between good and evil will continue to be waged, but when the battle is between a demon and an individual, it will be won or lost by the exorcists.