Jan 28, 2011

Let's Talk Exorcism...

It’s that time of year again. In what seems to be an annual event, Hollywood is releasing yet another film “inspired by true events” – about exorcism. This, of course, prompts reporters to call the Catholic Church to see if we’re demanding a wide-spread boycott of the film. How will we officially respond? Is the Archbishop concerned?

Two points to kick things off: 1) A movie “inspired” by real events should not be your reference point for any topic. In Hollywood, the nice couple on your street with two kids and a dog might “inspire” a film involving 13 kids fighting a deadly python that has taken over the neighbourhood. 2) Marketing plans for scary productions “inspired” by the Catholic Church generally look to provoke anger from the Church, or even better, calls to boycott the movie! Angry church = more free publicity.

Whenever a journalist calls, my objective is to always respond; whether the news is good, bad or ugly. In the case of movies: if we don’t respond, we’re evasive, secretive, and must be hiding something. If we do, we’re usually reduced to a three-second sound bite (“There is evil in the world…”) that demonstrates the Church’s “concern” about the piece. So, before further editing, here are some quick facts about exorcism from my perspective.

First and foremost, major exorcisms -- like the Hollywood-enhanced versions depicted in films like “The Exorcism” -- are rare. In fact, the films themselves are more frequent than major exorcisms – we haven’t had one in the Archdiocese of Toronto in decades.

In most Catholic dioceses, someone requesting an exorcism is assessed by a number of professionals before a major exorcism would be warranted. Spiritual, medical and psychological information are analyzed to determine whether a major exorcism is in order. If not, the Church, nonetheless, works to provide appropriate support to the individual.

In recent years, society has made great advances in the area of mental illness. Cases where one might have, centuries or even decades ago, been exorcised are now judged to be cases of mental illness rather than possession of an evil spirit.

Really, we are in the minor exorcism business. There’s a good chance you’ve attended one. They’re frequent. They occur in sacramental celebrations such as baptisms, in the form of a preparatory prayer (i.e., “that we may be freed from the bonds of original sin”). Some suggest the words of the “Our Father” (“deliver us from evil”) could be considered a healing prayer, too. There is no presumption that a person is possessed by an evil spirit when a minor exorcism takes place.

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, we have two priests appointed as exorcists, should they ever be needed. Their identity is kept anonymous; not because we’re being secretive but to allow these men to focus on their priestly duties instead of being the speed dial exorcists on call.

Most would agree that evil is present in our world. In rare cases, there may be legitimate cases of possession. But you won’t find priests scheduling their Wednesday 11:30 a.m. exorcisms. They’re more likely fighting evil by visiting the abandoned in nursing homes, forgiving a sinner in confession or volunteering at a food bank.

Outside of Hollywood, the power of God and good in this world far outweighs any force of evil. Not a bad ending for a movie - without any spinning heads…

Photo: Catholic News Service


Father E.J. said...

My goodness, you're on the ball.
Thanks so much, Neil. This is really helpful. I'm surprised the option isn't there to share this on facebook pages. I bet you'd get quite a few re-posts.

Newman Centre Catholic Chaplaincy said...

Friendly counterpoint:

I've read a few books by exorcists (Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Fr. Jose Antonio Ortega) that indicate that formal exorcisms occur far more frequently than movies are made about them.

But even if they didn't, doesn't the fact that exorcisms don't happen every few minutes make them more interesting to talk about, not less?

I get that anything can be fixated on to an unhealthy degree, but with all the exorcisms performed by our Lord or the Apostles in the New Testament, and the Catholic priest's role as exorcist ever since, I think the topic is worthy of both media representation and our discussion.

Final thought: in an era where evil is more or less denied or treated as purely subjective, and the spiritual world ignored, I think we should give Hollywood props when they actually deal with the subject.

For more info on the movie, check out the article below.


Neil MacCarthy said...

A couple of thoughts - thanks Fr. E.J. - we're working on getting a Facebook link on the blog soon! Thanks for the suggestion.

Newman - appreciate your insights. Always appreciate the counterpoint and you make some good points. My point in the piece was not to dismiss exorcism but help educate people in how rare major exorcisms actually are, at least in North America and to educate people about the process involved.

And bear in mind, the priest you referred to in the piece was on set and likely a paid consultant for the film. That said, I haven't seen the movie and from all accounts, it doesn't use the same artistic licence as some films of the past. But even the priest on set refers to the interpretation of the book as "loose".

All in all, it's important to have a healthy discussion on the topic - my intent in the post. After all is said and done, the key is to find good sources of information when looking for fact vs fiction but we can all appreciate a movie for what intends to do - the willing suspension of disbelief for a couple of hours.

Thanks for your insights.

Vox Cantoris said...


Thank you for this. It's good to know that there are two exorcists appointed in Toronto, I was not aware of that. I think by default, the Rector of a Seminary is also an Exorcist if nobody offficially holds that position. I believe that not long after his appointment at Ottawa, Archbishop Prendergast appointed two Exorcists.

Josh Canning said...

Hi Neil, the Newman comment was mine, I meant to sign in under my actual name.

Good point about the artistic license taken in other films. I remember reading an interview with one of the two exorcists who worked the case that the movie "The Exorcist" was based on. They two real-life exorcists saw the film together, and were asked to quiet down a couple of times when laughing during the more dramatic scenes (projectile green-pea vomit, head turning all the way around). However, the real case (it was actually a young boy from St. Louis in the '40s) was in many ways far more creepy than the film. I won't go into details!

Anyways, appreciate the post!

Anonymous said...

I know nearly nothing about exorcism but here are two points I wonder about:

1. Isn't the sacrament of reconciliation in essence a minor exorcism in that we renounce our own evil deeds and return to God?

2. I think what most people don't understand about possession is that it can only occur with our consent, so no need to fear that one might accidentally end up like one of the victims in the movies?

Josh Canning said...

Hey Anonymous,

Fr. Amorth in his book "An Exorcist tells his story" affirms that going to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion is more powerful than an exorcism, and is (coupled with an otherwise devout life) the best way avoid demonic interference in your life. So yeah.

But I don't know if you are required to give your consent to experience demonic possession. He says no, using the examples of curses as a way of the demonic entering one's life.

Anyways, I would recommend his book. But here is an interview with him. It doesn't answer your question, but it is still interesting.


Demetrius said...

Greetings in Christ,

If someone is having difficulty receiving emotional and/or spiritual support from their priest what can be done?

There is someone who has contacted me and who is convinced that someone close to them is possessed but has been unable to obtain any help from their priest and Church here in Canada.

What can you recommend? Please contact me at ocprs@yahoo.com

In Christ,


Anonymous said...

Hello and Goodmorning,

Ive recently become very interested in excorcism within the catholic church and was wondering who if any person I could speak to about it. Its a fascinating and controversial topic. Please feel free to email me with any information.

Thank you