Priests are being trained in exorcism, following a spate of demonic possessions
What's your favourite scary movie? Mine would have to be the 1973 spine-chiller The Exorcist. The characters, mood and premise have become so iconic over the years that everybody is well-versed in what the ceremony entails. But there's something quintessentially spooky about the concept, even if you don't believe in God or an afterlife. Just imagine how terrified and helpless you'd feel if one of your loved ones had their body held hostage by some demonic entity.
In real life, exorcisms are rare, used in only the most extreme of circumstances. Nowadays the church is far more likely to believe that a person speaking in tongues and frothing at the mouth is mentally ill, rather than practising witchcraft. Actually, getting an exorcism to take place is no easy matter.
The papacy insists on proof that the subject truly is possessed, and not faking or delusional, which means that many criteria have to be fulfilled before a priest will accept that the cause is supernatural.
Apparently, the Vatican-backed International Association of Exorcists, which represents more than 200 Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox priests, intends to train over 250 soldiers of God from 50 countries around the world in the exorcism ceremony, to combat Satan's agents on Earth.
Why the rush all of a sudden? Apparently, we're facing a so-called "pastoral emergency" at the moment. According to a report by Christian think-tank Theos, 500,000 people in Italy claimed to have been demonically possessed last year. Not to mention, in other countries, such as in the United Kingdom and Ireland, reports of possession are on the rise. Pope Francis has even stated that priests "must not hesitate" to refer members of their parishes to trained exorcists, provided they are suffering from "genuine spiritual disturbances," and added that: "We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would leave us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable."
The Vatican will be hosting a special exorcism convention at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in Rome. The week-long course, called "Exorcisms and the Prayer of Liberation", includes a number of informative seminars, with names like: "Angels and Demons in Sacred Scripture and the Teachings of the Church" and "Magic, Esoteric and Occult Bonds of Alternative and Energetic Therapies". There are apparently additional panels discussing African witchcraft, Afro-American cults, satanic rituals and how paedophilic pornography can be proliferated by devil-worshippers, as well as talks from doctors, psychologists and criminologists to teach exorcists how to discern between possession cases, hoaxes and mental illness.
The reason for this rise in reports of possessions is hotly debated by theologians and social scientists. In his book American Exorcism, Fordham University sociologist Michael Cuneo speculates that William Friedkin's movie (recently remade into a TV series), may explain why the west is suffering from this spate: "Exorcism is more readily available today in the United States than perhaps ever before. By conservative estimates, there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today." However, Cuneo adds that the vast majority of these services are not performed by the Catholic church, but by evangelists from alternative denominations.
According to Catholic.org, the rite of exorcism involves a priest dabbing the sign of the cross on the possessed victim's forehead with holy water, before reciting the Litany of Saints and then proceeding to read Bible passages to draw the demons out of their vessel. The priest invokes the name of Christ and will ask the demon to leave their body.
The priest will state: "I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ ... that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure. I command you, moreover, to obey me to the letter, I who am a minister of God despite my unworthiness; nor shall you be emboldened to harm in any way this creature of God, or the bystanders, or any of their possessions." The priest will continue to invoke God, Christ and the saints until the afflicted shows an improvement in their demeanour and appearance.
Some have criticised the move towards an increase in exorcisms as being irresponsible, and many sceptics believe that a large number of exorcism rituals constitute abuse, allowing preachers to take advantage of children or other vulnerable people under the guise of saving their souls. For instance, take the case of Nicaraguan woman Vilma Trujillo. Trujillo, a mentally ill woman from the village of El Cortezal, was tortured and killed in February by her pastor. Evangelical minister Juan Rocha starved and burned the woman in a brutal "exorcism" with the intent of expelling a demonic presence from her.
In the few cases where exorcisms have had a benefit, I would argue that it was the placebo effect in action. It's all very well being scared stiff by the devil on the silver screen but more often than not, someone who can hear voices is probably listening to their own schizophrenia, not Beelzebub. If you're concerned about a demonic possession, consult a doctor first and foremost, before you start splashing the holy water around.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu