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