I saw the movie “The Rite” today. I am not a professional movie reviewer but I will say, overall, I liked the movie. It’s most fundamental message is a good one: “You have to have faith to defeat the Devil.”  The movie follows the journey of a young seminarian who is struggling in his faith. He is sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. Beginning with great cynicism he is forced in stages to confront his own lack of faith and finds a breakthrough only when forced to decide to believe or not. I’ll leave the conclusion for your viewing.

I have also read the book  The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcistby Matt Baglio. The movie is only very loosely based on the book. The main subject in the book is not a troubled seminarian but an experienced priest of strong faith. The greatest strength of the book is that it is carefully researched and draws deeply on the Catechism, scripture, and the official instructions of the Church for exorcists. The movie, as you might expect goes more for the sensational and takes a lot of cinematic liberty with Catholic rites. The book however is careful and balanced, depicting the Church as also careful and balanced when it comes to exorcism. I strongly recommend the book for any who wish to learn more of this ancient Rite of the Church.

I would like to say a few things about exorcism that are important to know and remember, especially when sensationalistic movies etc. take liberties. Allow these observations of mine in no particular order.

1. The Church is very careful when it comes to approving an exorcism. Natural causes must be ruled out as a likely cause of the behavior of the afflicted person. Bishops normally will not approve an exorcism unless, and until, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, as well as medical doctors have thoroughly examined the afflicted person and generally concur that natural or organic causes are not at work. There is no rush to perform formal exorcisms if the guidelines are followed. The Ritual stipulates that an exorcist may use these prayers only when he is “morally certain” that the person he is praying over is possessed. Numerous mental illnesses can be mistaken for possession. Hence a careful and thoughtful evaluation is necessary by experts who do not simply reject the notion of possession but who are also not the sort to quickly presume it either.

2. The Ritual mentions three signs that indicate the possible presence of a demon: abnormal strength, the ability to speak or understand a previously unknown language, and the knowledge of hidden things. There are also possible signs in an aversion to the sacred. For example, one may experience the inability to pray or say the name of Jesus or Mary, to go to mass, or to receive communion. Another important sign is some degree of unawareness or refusal in the afflicted one of the notion that they are possessed. If some one comes to a priest and says, “I am possessed.” That is usually a sign they are not.

3. The Devil’s activity is usually distinguished in four ways: infestation, oppression, obsession, and demonic possession.

Infestation is the presence of demonic activity in a location or object. In such cases a simple blessing or saying mass on the premises will be the approach that is used.

Oppression usually involves some form of physical attack. There are noted mysterious blows or scratches inexplicably appearing on the body. Some claim to be pushed down stairs or thrown out of bed by an invisible force.

Obsession has involves an intense and persistent attack on the mind of the victim. Generally these attacks include random and obsessive thoughts that, though often absurd, are so intense that the victim is unable to free himself. There is the torment that completely dominates their thoughts.

Possession. In a demonic possession, the Devil takes temporary control of a person’s body, speaking and acting through it without the person’s knowledge. This doesn’t last indefinitely, but occurs only during moments of crisis in which the victim enters a trance state. Generally speaking, after the crisis passes, the victim will not remember what transpired (cf  The Rite, Baglio, Kindle ed Loc. 738-40)

4. At the heart of the Ritual of exorcism lie the prayers of exorcism themselves, which are broken up into two sections, known commonly as “deprecatory” and “imperative” In a deprecatory prayer, the exorcist entreats God to intervene on behalf of the person; the prayer begins “Hear, Holy Father …,” while in the imperative  prayer, the exorcist himself commands the demon to depart in the name of Jesus Christ, “I adjure you, Satan…” or “I cast you out.”

5. A new rite of exorcism was issued in 1999which replaced the previous one dating to 1952. The Ritual of 1616 is also in wide circulation. Most exorcist make use of the 1999 ritual as they must but also add the prayers from the 1952 ritual. This is due to a rather wide consensus that the 1999 ritual was “defanged.” The prayers of the 1952 and 1616 rituals are more elaborate and more commanding. To use these prayers seems permitted by the 1999 rite which states Aliae formulae deprecativae et imperativae addi possunt….(other deprecative and imperative formulas are able to be added….).

6. Priests are not simply permitted to undertake a formal exorcism on their own. The prayers of exorcism are “reserved blessings” and may only be undertaken with the permission and direction of the Bishop. Guideline thirteen of the Ritual states that the bishop can only nominate a priest who is “distinguished in piety, learning, prudence, and integrity of life.” In addition, “The priest should carry out this work of charily confidently and humbly under the guidance of the Ordinary.” (cf  The Rite, Kindle ed. Loc 1043-45)

7. It is my understanding that the appointed exorcist(s) of a diocese ought generally remain a confidential matter. It is a rather puzzling thing to me that so many exorcists, in recent years, have given public interviews and thus publically revealed their identity to third parties. This may not be strictly forbidden, but my own study and understanding of the matter is that confidentiality is the prudent and expected disposition in such things.

8. The process of an exorcism is not usually the compact, “one and done” event depicted in the movies. Exorcisms may be repeatedly performed over a number of weeks or months, even in some cases years. Sometimes relief will be had, only to have the demon return. It is also essential for the afflicted person to partake of the sacraments except where this is not possible. Confession and communion are an essential part of any deliverance.

9. Demons often hide at first and it may take a number of sessions for the exorcists to call forth a response from the demon. Usually, as the prayers, especially the imperative  ones, weary the demon and assault it, it will begin to manifest evidence of its presence.  When the demon is finally forced out into the open, the person will lose consciousness and enter into a trance. At this point, all movement and speech are controlled by the demon. During these times the person’s eyes will often roll up or down (the demon can’t bear to look at holy objects, including the priest), the hands will usually curl into claws, and the person will be taken over by a rage directed at sacred or holy objects. Typically, the person remembers nothing upon awakening (The Rite,Loc 1114-18)

10. There are not always strange or surreal things that take place in an exorcism. Often an individual may simply sit still and manifest little other than sighs, coughs or fidgeting. However there are also, in some cases, manifestations of a stronger sort, once the demon has revealed itself. These can include a strange, hoarse or deep voice, a significant change in personality, an argumentative and confrontational nature, the presence of foul odors, a strong aversion to holy water, the cross, or other sacred objects. In some cases the demon may manifest hidden knowledge of others in the room. It may also speak in languages unknown by the afflicted person. In some cases the demon may use the body of the possessed to fight back physically and often will manifest unusual strength. Finally, another sign of possession is that the afflicted person will often have little or no memory of their behavior while the demon was fully manifest.

11. Finally, a balance is evident and necessary in this matter and official Church teaching and policy reflects this careful balance.

On the one hand we, in the West, have become extremely rationalistic and reductionist. We seem to want to insist that EVERYTHING has a physical cause. With this mentality, every possible manifestation of demonic influence is usually dismissed as such and explained in terms of organic brain problems and mental illness. In many cases this may be true. But there are demons, Scripture is clear on this, and they do afflict us.

We must also avoid the tendency to easily attribute everything to the devil or demons.

The Church’s insistence on reasonably ruling out organic or natural causes is an important and cautionary measure. Making these investigations are like rumble strips that avoid a rush to conclude demons where there may be none. Great spiritual harm can be done to someone in rashly concluding possession, where there is none. Not only will other important medical and physcotherapeutic treatments be possibly delayed, but a person’s self-understanding can also be seriously distorted as well.

Careful, thorough and pastoral attention is due to those who are suspected of possible possession. The initial assessment is usually made by a parish priest. If he comes to suspect a possible case of possession, his next step ought to be to request an assessment under the auspices of the diocese. Only after a panel of experts, (to include a trained priest), recommends an exorcism , would the case come before the Bishop for a final decision. If he concurs, then the Bishop appoints the exorcist who begins the process and stays in suitable communication with the bishop. Sadly, by my reading, many dioceses are not well set up for such a process. In the west we have largely forsaken exorcism as a practice and such procedures have fallen by the wayside. Many American Bishops recently attended a workshop on the Rite of Exorcism and so we may see a careful process like to one describe re-established in more diocese. Time will tell.

In the end, see movies like “The Rite” as an exotic and extreme depiction of what is ultimately a pastoral ministry of the Church. At the heart of all ministry is love and mercy, the care of a Church who loves her children, the ministry of shepherds who tend to their flock with strength and gentleness.

Resources (click on link):

1952 Rite of Exorcism

1999 Rite of Exorcism

Exorcism Primer

The Rite. The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio

ABCs 20/20 did a piece on exorcism a number of years ago. If you have the time, these videos are well worth watching. Overall the piece is fair and features an actual exorcism that the Archdiocese of New York allowed to be filmed with limits.

33 Responses

  1. Erica says:

    Are exorcisms always successful?

    • Ismael says:

      Not always.

      Some things must be made clear:

      1- One time exorcisms rarely if ever free a person from the devil. Exorcisms must be performed regularly sometimes for months or even years in the worst cases.

      2- “The time of liberation belongs to God” said Fr. Amorth, the president of the international association of exorcists. This means that only God know when a person will be freed.
      There were even some saints that were tormented by the devil (probably St. Paul himself, as he writes: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” 2 Corinthians 12:7).
      Although it might seem strange sometimes the torments of the devil can lead a person to a better life. Many who were possessed found God and holiness in their battles with the devil.
      Hence “exorcism” is a road to conversion and holier life for the person struck by the devil. As St. Augustine tells us God can make good out of evil.

      3- Exorcisms are useless unless the person possessed co-operates. The most important thing for a person affected by the devil is convert to a better life, stop sinning, regular participation of the bl. sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. These two sacraments are the worst enemies of the devil: the first steals our soul from his clutches and the second strengthen us in God.
      A person who is affected by the devil in an ‘extraordinary way’ (the ordinary way is temptation) who continues to live a life of sin has little to no chance to be freed.
      Basically exorcism, by analogy, can be compared to a therapy to cure a disease, but if a person does not start living a healthier the therapy would be useless.

      I hope this helps you a bit.

      God Bless!

  2. Bill says:

    Msgr:
    I recently read Fr Eutenauer’s book on exorcism, which I found balanced and very informative. I wonder if you have read his work and how it compare’s to the Biglio book, which I will read on your recommendation.

    I know that Fr Eutenauer is very controversial at the moment and his situation is obviously very sad, but I really did learn quite a bit about the Rite of Exorcism, and the differences between the 1999, 1952 and 1616 prayers. I would be disappointed if his work was ignored in light of his admitted personal transgresssions.

    Your thoughts?

    Bill

  3. Sherry says:

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for yet another insightful and articulate article. This is a timely topic. It is helpful for us to understand what the Church teaches on this subject – not only for our own benefit but also to be able to respond to comments or questions from others.

    There are several other excellent articles on the New Oxford Review (.org) website. In the left hand column you click on “Topical Dossiers” and toward the bottom you will see the one on Spiritual Warfare.

    Richard E. Gallagher, M.D. , a Catholic psychiatrist with outstanding credentials, wrote “A Case of Demonic Possession” which is one of the New Oxford Review’s most popular because of its professionalism. There is another in that dossier written by Bobby Jindal, along with several others that are helpful in explaining the subject.

    The movie “The Rite” will definitely generate some interesting discussion and it is important for people of Faith to be prepared to address the misinformation that will inevitably be around.

  4. Julie D. says:

    Your review says, “It’s most fundamental message is a good one: ‘You have to have faith to defeat the Devil.’”

    This raises a question that I find interesting in horror movies. Ever since the movie Salem’s Lot, based on the Stephen King novel, we have seen presentations that if someone doesn’t have enough faith then they are ineffective against evil. That is the approach that I have seen reported as being shown in this movie, as you yourself say.

    But is that really a good and valid point to approve?

    Wouldn’t the point be that in actuality man’s faith is not the controlling factor in his relationship with the Almighty? In Salem’s Lot, sacramentals wouldn’t work against the vampires if the priest didn’t have full and unwavering faith. The attitude of The Rite seems to be an extension of that, which would be completely wrong.

    There is transubstantion to the host even if the priest is having doubts, isn’t there? The power of one’s baptism remains real even if the person later has doubts, doesn’t it? I know that often Jesus would push a person to see their faith before doing a miracle but there are many instances where that just wasn’t the case either.

    Anyway, I find the “you must have faith” attitude troubling actually, rather than a good thing in a case such as the one you explain.

    I haven’t seen the movie and so am simply going on what various reviewers are saying. I would be interested in your comments on this attitude.

    • A few thoughts: Donatism was rejected by the Church and so you rightfully exhibit caution in saying the faith of the exorcist is eseential. However the donatist heresy referred to sacraments which work ex opere operato (i.e. by the very fact of the work, the thing is wrought). Exorcism is a sacramental and the faith of the giver and recipient are not completely ex-essential for sacramentals. Sacramentals are said to work ex opere operantis which does refer to the disposition of the worker or minister. THat said, I agree, it is really the faith of the Church that is operative in an exorcism and everything does not depend on the exorcist alone. But then too we also have the requirement that a priest who is appointed by the Bishop ought be known for his faith, piety and good moral character. Hence we are dealing with a careful balance here.

      • Julie D. says:

        Thank you, Msgr!

        Perhaps I was influenced as well by the fact that, sadly, sometimes despite a Bishop’s best efforts a priest can change and what he does before corrective measures are taken (whatever those may be) still counts. I am thinking of the case of our parish priest who was besieged by parents wanting their children rebaptized after finding out that the priest who did it was guilty of some terrible things (which it is not necessary to go into here). Hence, he had to explain to one and all that a baptism does not depend on the sanctity of the priest doing it, though naturally we know that most priests wouldn’t have this situation arising.

        Your comments, though enlightening and interesting, don’t exactly answer what I was trying to get at. I realize I probably clouded the issue.

        Based on what you say, then, is the message you mention actually the right one to praise?

        “It’s most fundamental message is a good one: ‘You have to have faith to defeat the Devil.’”

        Thanks!

  5. Ismael says:

    Msgr. I would like to add something regarding point 6 in your list… I hope I am not being redundant:

    1- Every Bishop is also an exorcist. Priests however need ‘special permission’ to perform an exorcism. Since the exorcism is a rite that prays for the whole Church against the devil, Bishops have this particular authority as successors of the apostles, but priests do not, hence a priest needs a Bishop’s permission (as an extension of this apostolic authority).
    Of course not every Bishop has the ‘talent’ or training to be a good exorcists… but that is a different matter.

    2- Also adding to point 6: The rite of exorcism, including the Leo XIII rite cannot be used by anyone except an exorcist or a bishop. The exorcism of Leo the XIII was allowed to be said by anyone in the past, but recently the Church stated that even this prayer of exorcism is reserved to authorized exorcists only.

    Performing a ‘do-it-yourself’ exorcism by a lay person or even a non-authorized priest can be *VERY dangerous* as scriptures also tell us:

    “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.” (Acts 19, 13-16)

    Of course praying for the liberation of someone afflicted by the devil (at mass, with the rosary or other prayers) is always good if not recommended :)

    Regarding point 3 and Devil’s ‘Oppression':
    Some people who are possessed also experience such things as wounds or been thrown of stairs (often without suffering any injuries at all).

    However this can happen also to people who are not possessed. In the case of some saints it happened that the devil attacked them physically, although he never possessed their body.

    Such examples are by two saints who share the same name: St. Antony the abbot (a desert father, the devil tried many times to tempt him or hurt him in physical form) and St. Antony of Padua (when the devil destroid the podium where Antony stood trying to stop him from preaching).

    • Thanks, these are all valuable additions to the article and good warnings as well.

      • Adam says:

        I think we can still use Exorcism of Leo XIII but not in the name of the Holy Church as I think Father Amorth says “the private use”….:

        “First, official exorcisms are not allowed; they are reserved exclusively for the exorcist. The same holds true for the exorcism of Leo XIII, even though it is now part of the public domain. The private use of such exorcisms is another matter;”

        ”Comments from Father Amorth Concerning Inde Ab Aliquot Annis
        from Exorcist Tells His Story, Ibid, pp.190-91

        The above-cited letter warns against any direct dealings with demons and states that their name should not be asked by those who have not been granted the specific faculty to do so. The Acts of the Apostles report a particularly fitting event … (of the consequences of acting without faculty to do so in the story of the Seven Brothers –Acts 19:11-20).
        from An Exorcist: More Stories, [American Edition], Ignatius Press, San Francisco: (2002), (translated into English by Nicoletta V. MacKenzie), pp. 189-90

        I will now explain some of that is forbidden and what is required, according to these guidelines (of Inde Ab Aliquot Annis).
        First, official exorcisms are not allowed; they are reserved exclusively for the exorcist. The same holds true for the exorcism of Leo XIII, even though it is now part of the public domain. The private use of such exorcisms is another matter; at least, this is how I understand the above-cited document.
        We must avoid addressing the demon directly and to find out his name and — I add — anything else. All other considerations aside, a direct dialogue with the demon can be dangerous to anyone who dares to initiate it without the due authorization of the Church, and therefor without her protection.
        At the end, the document reminds of of the importance of prayer, the sacraments, and the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the angels, and the saints…. ”

        Source: http://www.saint-mike.org/warfare/library/wp-content/docs/exorcismnorms.html

  6. Caeli Francisco says:

    Msgr, is it possible that there are physical or bodily changes in a person possessed, such as unnatural bone growths, which might be a manifestation of the indwelling evil?

    • I wouldn’t rule it out but one would surely want to be sure there were no natural explanations. Also, I am largely unaware of permanent physical changes being a routine manifestaton of possession which remains primarily a spiritual matter, though it can and does have at least temporary physical manifestations.

  7. Katherine G ERT says:

    This is all very interesting to me. I have had limited experience with those that were truly possessed (in my work in the psych field and in the ER). I think at times possession by the Devil can be mistaken for some psychiatric disorders. The Devil’s activities that you mentioned above are also parts of psychiatric disorders. However, my question has been at times, and regarding certain patients and people, are some of these psych disorders biological or spiritual in nature? Meaning, is there a biological process at hand (as with PTSD and a few other disorders) nurturing the symptoms, or is it spiritual in nature (no physical/chemical means of the symptoms visible and another force causing the symptoms)?

  8. Ken says:

    I saw the day after it opened and like it a lot. To me, “The Exorcist” is still a better movie, but maybe that’s because it was locally-set and the writer picked on the liberal Jesuits at Georgetown.

    In any event, the great thing about “The Rite” is the part about the necessity of faith referenced above. It is very clear in the movie.

    N.B. The exorcist from San Jose who reviewed it either missed a few important details or was not successful in correcting them. The deacon giving absolution to a dying person cannot do that (completely invalid), nor can he perform an exorcism himself without ordination to the priesthood first. Both principles apply to the traditional and post-Vatican II rites.

    Having said that, it’s a very positive thing for this to be the nation’s top movie. Faith in God and Church beats the Devil? Awesome.

  9. David says:

    This might be nit-picking an otherwise excellent (as usual) article, but shouldn’t the word “Mass” be capitalized? It seems to me to be disrespectful when writing it in lower case.

  10. rebecca says:

    Wow, this a really interesting post Fr. Pope. Thank you for sharing this information. I have often felt comforted knowing our faith does have such a rite, I feel more secure now having read your post because I now understand that many spiritual leaders are involved in the process, including the Bishop.

    Thank you for educating us.

    Praying the Lord blesses you with many more informative and helpful posts.

  11. Vijaya says:

    Thank you for a most informative article. If the taking of Sacraments is essential, then one cannot exorcise evil spirits from people who are not Christian. Is that correct?

    It’s interesting that we put so much faith in science, ie, that science has to be able to explain physical or psychological disturbances first, before we would call in a priest for evaluation. I’m interested in how you answer Katherine’s question as well.

    The flip side of this is how some people refuse to believe in miracles … they want to be able to explain everything. But some phenomena defy human explanation.

    Thank you for the movie review and the book recommendation.

  12. Redge says:

    I was debating on watching “The Rite”. I’m glad I came across your site. I am a Christian but not Catholic. This background helped to understand the process of exorcism.

    Thank you for providing such a thorough review.

  13. Jacob says:

    Very informative article, thanks. The videos were also informative, but at some point I’m going to have to figure out the name of what I’ve begun to think of as “the exorcism song.”

  14. Vijaya says:

    I am curious about the knowledge that evil spirits have. IN many Eastern cultures, there is the practice of Astrology and Tarot Cards to predict the future. Does this knowledge then come from evil spirits, if there is any accuracy to them? I confess that in high school I got a book from the library on astrology and charged my peers $10 to make a horoscope chart and then wrote general paragraphs about their future (I know, total sham)… but I wonder whether there are true psychics out there, and if so, should people flee from them.

    God knows our future because He knows our character, but so does the devil, right? They know our strengths and weaknesses … and given our free will, know what we will do in particular situations.

  15. just_a_dre says:

    Father,

    How does a possession occur? Is it only when one messes with the occult? Do possessions occur amongst the faithful who have done nothing to provoke the evil? Is everyone *at risk* for a possession?

    • Generally speaking one has to open the door somehow. There are also curses that sometimes bring on possession, but here too it is usually held that one can only succumb to a curse if they have opened the door through explicit or implicit act. Implicit acts might simply involve a rejection of the faith, or a refusal to practice the faith in some significant manner.

  16. rebecca says:

    Msgr. Pope
    I had not watched any videos either on this post or the “darkness” one before commenting earlier. Having just finished watching the 4 part video of the exorcism of Gina, I must say I am not feeling safe at all.
    I know evil spirits exists and that people and things do become possessed by this evil, which is often referred to as Satan or the devil. This is a very scary reality and I pray that you will pray intently tonight on behalf of those who are possessed or those in need of deliverance. …maybe for those of us who are just plain afraid if evil spirits, as well,

    Your prayers along with other priests and clergy members are very necessary as we all find our way through this very real and scary battle between evil and love.

    Sorry, my comment is not deep and intellectual, rather, it is raw and primitive. Hence, I run to the church and ask for protection, (as I have been taught) by pleading the blood of the lamb and ask for protection through God’s son , Jesus Christ. Amen

    a
    Also, thank you Ismael for your instructive input .

  17. Anne says:

    I am looking forward to seeing the film here in the UK which comes out end-February. Thank you for an insightful and lucid post.

  18. Maria says:

    You may be able to get Fr. Euteneuer’s book at the bookstore at the Basilica of the Immac. Conception in DC. That’s where I got mine.
    I think it was very good and informative.

  19. Pamela Lindsay says:

    I am the new “mom” of a young man (19) who has lived with us for 13 months. His entire life, until a year ago, was one of horrendous mistreatment by those who raised him. He was baptized in the Church, but never confirmed. At a young age, he embraced “darkness” as his friend. We finally got him to a priest and a counselor from Catholic Charities. He has asked God to help him. His ideas of spiritual things are quite confused. I do believe he is heavily oppressed by evil. It may be even worse than that.
    I cannot find a priest who will help, other than to say he needs to start RCIA this fall. His counselor sees more clearly, I think.
    I don’t know where to go to begin the process of getting the help I believe he needs. Exorcists seem to be very hidden, which I totally understand. I have spoken to two priests, who simply do not believe me or take me seriously. I was unable to even get close to talking of the “e” word. He desperately needs more help than he is receiving. Where do I start?

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