The history of Christian exorcism
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The Roman Ritual of Exorcism has a long tradition.
Its origins are Biblical, appearing first as explicit commands from Jesus meant to “cast out”1 the devils and “unclean” spirits which possessed people.
In the New Testament, an encounter in a synagogue with such an evil spirit ended when Jesus “rebuked” it, demanding that it come out of the man it was possessing. 2 Thereafter, the “name of Jesus Christ” was used by servants of God to “command” possessing spirits to abandon their hosts. 3
From the age of Apostles and on through the centuries into Medieval times, there existed an unbroken belief in the power of the Church to perform exorcism, in the name of and by the authority and power of Jesus Christ to expel evil spirits. Eventually a text was developed, forged from the experiences and teachings of exorcists from the time of Jesus onwards. Some parts of the text date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, however, much of it was refined in the years leading up to the Renaissance. The Roman Ritual of Exorcism finalised in the 17th century is the version still used today by Catholic exorcists. 4
The Church’s official text for Exorcism can be read aloud in twenty minutes. However, with exorcisms recorded as lasting many hours, more often than not ten or twelve 5, the rite of Exorcism is much more nuanced than can be understood from this centuries-in-the-making text.
In practice, the text is used as a framework, with the exorcist judging what is necessary for the individual exorcism. For this reason the role of the exorcist is fundamental.
What makes an exorcist?
In his book Hostage to the Devil, the eminent theologian and Vatican professor, Malachi Martin, discusses his experiences of having known many priests who work as exorcists. He describes the exorcist as the “centerpiece of every exorcism”, as it is they who must “engage in a one-to-one confrontation […] with pure evil”. 6
Usually a parish priest, an exorcist is an experienced member of the clergy who will have most likely assisted with exorcisms, under the guidance of his senior, in his younger days. “Sensitive” and “solid” of mind, these men must be able to withstand what Martin describes as “dreadful and irreparable” damage each time he engages with evil during an exorcism. 7
The Catholic Church does not provide any sort of official training for this work. Whilst the Roman Ritual of Exorcism text exists as a guide, it is the exorcist who must decide which parts to use, which parts to omit, and, if necessary, which parts to repeat, as well as substituting their own favourite readings and prayers. To do this, he must have the explicit permission of his Bishop. According to Martin, without the sanction of the Church an exorcism is rarely, if ever, successful. 8
Before any of this, however, it is the Church’s responsibility to assess whether not the individual who has been brought to them is indeed possessed.
Signs of demonic possession
Henri Gesland, a French priest and exorcist who worked in Paris, stated in 1974 that out of 3,000 consultants since 1968, only four cases were what he believed to be demonic possession. 9
Whilst cases are rare, there are signs of possession that exorcists look for.
In the case of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who underwent Catholic exorcism rites during the year before her death in the 1970s, the alleged signs of possession were numerous. She suffered visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations. About three years before she died, she reported seeing ghastly, demonic faces, what she called “Fratzen”, the German word for grimaces. Whenever she witnessed them she claimed that she felt empty, as though the devil were inside of her. Anneliese also described experiencing foul smelling odours, something which she likened to burning fecal matter. 10
When assessing the validity of a possession case, the exorcist will also consider strange physical ailments, which defy the explanation of medical professionals. This may include seizures and chronic insomnia.
Physical phenomena, including freezing temperatures in the room where the possessed person is, as well as psychic powers such as telepathy and levitation may also be witnessed.
“In possessions I have seen eyes rolled back in the head, throwing out obscenities, bodily contortions, foul odors, temperatures drop in the room, and I’ve witnessed someone levitating.” – Father Vincent Lampert, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. 11
However, the strongest sign of possession is said to be obvious repugnance to all symbols, mention and sight of religious objects, places, people and ceremony. For Anneliese Michel this included her inability to approach a shrine whilst on pilgrimage with her father. She claimed that the earth beneath her feet burned. It even pained her to look upon holy pictures and sacramentals. On another occasion, her mother, Anna, stated that when Anneliese stood before a statue of the Virgin Mary her eyes turned completely black. 12
According to Church teaching, such intolerance of religion manifests in true possession cases because evil spirits – demons – belong to the “Kingdom of Satan”, which is the absolute opposite of the “Kingdom of God”. During one exorcism described in Malachi Martin’s book, when the priest pressured the possessing spirit to reveal its name, it simply responded: “We are all of the Kingdom”. 13
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Only once the victim has been assessed by both holy men and medical doctors, and a conclusion of possession has been made, can an exorcism take place.
What happens during an exorcism?
In the words of an exorcist discussing the exorcism process, there are six informal, generally agreed upon stages involved in casting out an evil spirit. These are: “Presence, Pretense, Breakpoint, Voice, Clash and Expulsion”. 14
According to those who have been present during exorcisms, as soon as the exorcist enters the room, the atmosphere changes. This “presence” is “unmistakable”, and is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time. In the words of Malachi Martin, it is “concentratedly intent on hate for hate’s sake”. 15
It is the job of the exorcist to engage this presence, for this is the possessing spirit. During this confrontation, a “pretense” is constructed: the evil spirit tries to hide behind the possessed, as though to make it appear “to be one and the same person and personality with the victim”. When acting under this pretense, the evil spirit may cite past experiences and memories of the possessed, in an attempt to confuse those who are present, making them believe that the possessed person is actually innocent, and being subjected to an unnecessary exorcism by the priest.
According to the Roman Ritual of Exorcism, the exorcist must be aware of “the tricks and deceits which evil spirits use in order to lead him astray”, by trying to persuade the exorcist that the possessed’s “affliction is quite natural” or that they are now “freed” of the evil spirit. 16 In most instances this is not the case. As the pretense begins to break down, in response to prayers and religious readings, the behaviour of the possessed usually increases in violence.
“Breakpoint” is the stage in the exorcism when the possessing spirit begins to speak in the third person, as they are now separate from the victim and no longer hiding behind them. At this point the “Voice” is heard.
On Saturday 31st May, 1788, Reverend Joseph Easterbrook was alerted to the strange case of George Lukins, a man who claimed to be possessed by the devil. The next month, Reverend Easterbrook visited Lukins and conducted an exorcism in an attempt to free him from the possessing spirit. According to the Reverend’s testimony, during the exorcism Lukins spoke in a “deep, hoarse, hollow voice, personating an invisible agent” within the room. The “voice” declared itself to be the “great Devil” and “sang and screamed in various sounds, some of which did not resemble a human voice”. 17
Such a “Voice” was also heard centuries later during the exorcisms of Anneliese Michel. Guttural and hateful, the sounds were not like anything one would expect to come from the body of a twenty-three year old woman.
In order for any exorcism to proceed, this “Voice” must be silenced.
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What follows is described as the “Clash” – a “direct and personal collision” between the possessing spirit and the exorcist. It is now that the exorcist must force the evil spirit to reveal as much as possible, any and all information making the next and final step of the exorcism easier.18
According to the Roman Ritual of Exorcism, the exorcist is advised to ask the name and number of the possessing spirits. 19 Rarely is the true name of a demonic entity discovered. According to Malachi Martin, names are given on an “ad hoc basis”, and may change for the same spirit in relation to different victims.20 In the case of Anneliese Michel, the voice provided several different names, including “Nero” and “Cain”. In other cases, described by Martin in his book, the given names of the possessing spirits were bizarre: “Tortoise”, “Girl-Fixer”, “Uncle Ponto” and “Mr. Natch”.21
During the “Clash”, exorcists are also advised to find out when the evil spirit first entered the possessed. Whilst Church authorities cannot speculate on why one person may become possessed instead of another, the Christian viewpoint is that consent from the victim to allow the spirit in is always necessary.22 For Elizabeth Knapp, a household servant born in Massachusetts around 1655, she supposedly became possessed after the Devil promised her “money, silks, fine clothes, [and] ease from her labor”. 23
Throughout the Clash, the possessing spirit or possessing spirits will violently resist the exorcist. It may even become necessary to physically restrain the possessed person.
Only after the exorcist has uncovered information about the possessing spirit, by using a mixture of questions and prayer, can Expulsion be attempted.
For this final stage, an extract from the Roman Ritual of Exorcism meant to be read aloud by the exorcist is as follows:
“I, therefore, enjoin every unclean spirit, each devil, each part of Satan: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. After his baptism by John, he was led into the desert and he conquered you on your own ground. Desist from attacking this man (woman) who Jesus formed from matter for his honour and glory. Shake with fear, not at the human fragility of a miserable man, but at the image of the all-powerful God.” 24
Prayers follow and continue for as long as is necessary for the possessed to be completely free. If Expulsion is successful, all are aware that the Presence is gone, totally and utterly, from the room. To end the exorcism, the exorcist will conclude with a prayer of thanks and affirm his and everyone else in the room’s faith.
Demonic possession in the present day
Even though the Roman Ritual of Exorcism is an archaic text, it is still very much relevant in modern Church practice. Whilst cases of demonic possession regarded as genuine by the Church are still rare, there have been warnings that possession is on the rise.
In an article published by the National Catholic Register in 2017, the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Father Vincent Lampert, stated that demand for exorcisms is outpacing the supply of active exorcists. In his words, “The problem isn’t that the devil has upped his game, but more people are willing to play it.” 25
As fanciful as possession and exorcism may seem to some, the testimonies of those who have witnessed them is shockingly consistent. From Biblical accounts to Elizabeth Knapp in the 17th century, to George Lukins one hundred years afterwards, to Anneliese Michel in the 1970s, to present day reports, the similarities between cases are unmistakable. The “voice” always manifests violently, and repulsion elicited by holy objects, words and people is consistently demonstrated. Catholic exorcism and possession have been with us for centuries, and are not likely to go anywhere any time soon.
- Hostage to the Devil., by Malachi Martin (1992 edition)
- Rev. Joseph Easterbrook’s notes on George Lukins: “A Man Possessed of the Devil”, in The Wonders of Nature and Providence, Displayed (1825)
- “US Exorcists: Demonic Activity on the Rise.”, by Patti Armstrong in the National Catholic Register (11 March 2017)
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