Exorcism or Deliverance? Some Pastoral Reflections on Assisting the Faithful who are Tormented by Demons
There is wide interest today in the topic of exorcism. The publication a couple of years of the The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio, and the subsequent movie and interviews with Fr. Gary Thomas have sparked some of this interest. Prior to this other books such as An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriel Amorth and other such books had paved the way for the renewed interest.
But frankly, another reason is that, as our world becomes more secular, families disintegrate and the outright celebration of sinful practices spreads, bondage to sinful drives, psychological trauma, and openness to demonic influence is also on the increase.
Sadly a whole generation of priests were often taught to distrust traditional understandings of trauma and dysfunction that gave significant weight to spiritual causes. These priests were often trained to see most such things as merely psychological in nature and, thus the only recommended course was psychotherapy. Parishioners were sent, often without even a prayer being said.
Gratefully the tide is turning back to a more balanced approach and Catholics are right asking for spiritual help, along with other helpful approaches such as psychotherapy and the use of psychtropic medicines.
But with the renewed emphasis on exorcism in the news and other sources, it must be said that some of the increased requests for the formal Rite of Exorcism, often manifests and misunderstanding of that rite, and also a lack of information on other avenues for healing.
For the truth is, outright demonic possession is rare, and that is what the formal Rite of Exorcism is meant to address. Most people who present themselves, or someone they love, to the Church are not possessed by the devil or demons. There may be lesser forms of trouble such as obsession, oppression or torment at work, along with psychological trauma, and other more natural sources of struggle.
For such people, who are not possessed, what is needed is deliverance, not exorcism.
What is deliverance? Deliverance is prayer and on-going ministry that uses numerous approaches to bring healing and wholeness to those who, in some way after baptism, have come to struggle significantly with bondage to sin, the influence of demons, sinful drives, or the effects of significant psychological and/or spiritual trauma.
Deliverance involves taking hold of the full freedom that God is given us, of helping the faithful who struggle to lay hold of the glorious freedom of the children of God (cf Rom 8:21). St. Paul says, that the Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1:13 – 14).
There is also a magnificent passage in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul is told of his mission to the Gentiles by the Lord: I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God. Acts 26:17–18.
This fundamentally is a description of the ongoing work of deliverance that the whole Church must accomplish for God’s chosen people. Deliverance seeks to take people out from under Satan’s power and place them under the Authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is to bring people to, or restore them to, their true identity as sons and daughters of God.
For, even after baptism, it is possible that we open doors to Satan, and he is able to gain some degree of access to our hearts and minds. When this is the case, a Christian, working with others, clergy and fellow believers alike, must take a stand against the schemes of the devil by repenting of sin, and renouncing any form of agreement with the deceptions of the enemy.
Deliverance involves coming to an understanding of the tactics of the evil one and also the flawed thinking which often infects our minds. It involves coming to know and name these tactics of the evil one, and these deep drives of sin within us. It involves repenting of them, and steadily renouncing their influence so that we come to greater serenity, peace, and healing; in other words, to deliverance.
This deliverance is effected in many ways: by the Word of God proclaimed and devoutly read, through the frequent reception of sacraments of Holy Communion and confession, through spiritual direction, through the experience of the Sacred Liturgy, praise and worship, through authentic and close fellowship with other believers, through personal prayer, through psychotherapy where necessary, and through what might be called a deliverance ministry that often involves both clergy and lay people praying together with those who struggle, and offering support, and encouragement.
Here is therefore, the description of a wider ministry of deliverance that looks past exorcism, alone, (and which only applies rather rare circumstances of possession). Deliverance ministry seeks to broaden healing to the large number of people, (to some extent all of us a certain times) who need healing and deliverance.
Who needs deliverance? While everyone can benefit from such a ministry in a general sort of a way, there are more particularly those among us who go through intense crises and need special and focused ministry. This ministry may occasionally involve formal exorcism, but it usually involves a more general need that we would call a need for deliverance. And this deliverance should be a multidisciplinary approach as described just above.
My own experience with the need for deliverance ministry, is quite personal. For I myself, at a critical point in my life, needed deliverance. The specific area where I needed deliverance concerned grave, and increasingly debilitating bouts with severe anxiety.
This significant torment had begun for me, at an early age. As early as age 10, I began to experience long periods of sleeplessness due to extreme worry. At the time in my family there were many crises underway, related to my sister’s severe mental illness and my parents’ struggle with alcohol. These bouts of extreme anxiety I began to endure, usually lasting for months at a time, were sporadic at first, coming in going somewhat mysteriously.
Through my teenage years these episodes of extreme anxiety became more frequent, and troublesome enough that my parents placed me in outpatient psychotherapeutic counseling and I was prescribed psychotropic medicines. Some benefits were attained hereby, and my college and seminary years were largely serene.
But for me a major crisis ensued in my 33rd year, when, as a young priest, I was asked to take a very challenging assignment. While I initially agreed to the assignment, I was soon assailed by extreme anxiety, sleeplessness, frequent panic attacks, almost non-stop rumination and depression. I was certain that I was losing my mind. This led to brief hospitalization, and the need to step back from the assignment.
But my crisis only deepened into post traumatic stress syndrome and into deeper and darker depression. I also began to experience a demonic presence. Even on sunny days my peripheral vision was shrouded in a palpable darkness and I experienced demonic presence in my bedroom, a brooding dark presence, which tormented me throughout the night. I found it necessary to sleep in my outer room with the door open for fear of this presence.
Knowing and seeing my declining condition, a brother priest prayed with me and insisted that I seek help. It was clear that I was in need of deliverance that I was not living the normal and promised Christian life. I was tormented by fear and locked in depression, and self-loathing. My accuser, the evil one, had shown his face and largely robbed me of the glorious freedom of the children of God. Deliverance was needed, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Eighteen years later, I want to tell you I have been delivered, Thank you Jesus! I rarely worry about anything now.
But I also want to say that deliverance takes time, and involves a multidisciplinary approach. Unfortunately most people just seek relief, but God is in the healing business, and healing takes time, courage, lots of prayer, patience and waiting on the Lord.
The elements of my deliverance and healing included daily Mass, daily prayer and the reading of Scripture, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, group therapy, weekly Alanon meetings, weekly confession, deliverance prayers, and walking in fellowship with the people of God. Slowly, through all these means, the dark moments grew briefer the light grew brighter. My priestly ministry also grew richer and I became more compassionate and more able to help others in their struggles
One of the things I had to discover was that my deliverance was linked to uncovering and naming sinful drives, and distorted thinking, which provided doorways for the devil to rob me of my freedom.
The primary sinful drive with which I struggled was that of control, which is a form of pride. Growing up in an often troubled home, one of my strategies had been to carve out small areas in my life that I could strictly control. For example I kept my room very clean, and often kept it locked when I was away from the house. There were many other such things that I did, and the little areas of life I could control gave me some sense of safety.
But as I grew older and my responsibilities increased, I took this attitude of control into those areas and often insisted unreasonably in being in control of things that cannot reasonably be controlled. Finally, I was given a challenging assignment, and realizing I could never possibly keep everything under control, I went into great crisis.
Ultimately I needed to repent of my strong drive to control and see it for the pride that it was. I needed to learn to rely on God more. But striving to rely on someone other than myself, even God, was frankly terrifying. It took lots of repentance, growing self-knowledge, and learning the moves of pride and control, as well as developing better and more reasonable strrategies that accepted the fact that there are many things I cannot control.
And through it all, there were great battles with Satan who did not want to easily relax his grip. Thanks be to God I had many helpers, many counselors and people who were praying for me. Deliverance did come. It came slowly at first, but with increasing speed.
This is deliverance ministry. And yes it takes time, and many helpers from many disciplines. Sacraments are essential and fundamental, as is prayer, and the Word of God. But deliverance, in most cases also requires psycho-therapeutic and medical interventions as well. This was my journey to deliverance.
In my years as a priest I have had also had to walk with others, slowly helping them to find serenity and to appreciate that there is a big difference between relief and healing. Little by little, building trust and striving to increase the “healing team” I have seen many make progress similar to my own. But, frankly, it takes time. It is a journey and God proceeds very delicately in these matters, often waiting till we are ready. For, healing takes courage, and God often waits till we are ready.
So, while recent interest in exorcism is encouraging, it is also necessary to have care that we not focus too much on what is rare, even exotic, and thereby overlook what is often more necessary and applicable to most cases: deliverance prayer and ministry.
A few resources to recommend to you.
Two excellent books on deliverance have been written by Neal Lozano:
Here are some deliverance prayers and I others in this work often prayer with the faithful and encourage them to pray with others: Deliverance prayers
Here is a minor exorcism prayer that Pope Leo XIII made available for priests to say. Please note, this is not from the prayers of formal exorcism that only an exorcist authorized by the Bishop may pray. This is a minor exorcism prayer that assists priests in vigorously denouncing the presence and incursions of demons in a general sort of way and it should not be confused with a solemn exorcism performed on an individual whom the Church has deemed likely to be possessed :
To be said by a priest: Prayer Against Satan and the Rebellious Angels For a Priest to Say
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7) I am a witness.