Exorcisms-R-Us

"Now when (Jesus) stepped ashore, there met him a certain man who for a long time was possessed by a devil... Many times it had laid hold of him and he was bound with chains... but he would break the bonds asunder... And Jesus asked him, saying, 'What is they name?' And he said, Legion..." -- Luke 8:27-30

Let's face it, exorcism is a creepy subject, even if you don't happen to believe that there are 600 or so catalogued demons just itching to slip inside your body to make you flop around like a fish out of water. Even if you're a skeptic of levitations, talking in tongues and black-eyed little girls spewing vomit and obscenities, you can almost hear the clatter of cloven feet and whiff the stench of burning hair when your mind happens to wander down that unhappy path.

And just when you thought we'd turned a new millenium and left that medieval nonsense behind, up pops the Pope with an honest-to-God exorcism to remind us that old Scratch and his minions are never far from our thoughts. Never far, even, from the thoughts of one of the great world leaders...

Whoa! What's that thing looking over your shoulder!?! Whatever you do, don't look around... just keep reading, slowly, carefully. Let's be careful out there, people! Real careful! Because, you never know...

Exorcism 2000

"Get me the exorcist book, quick!"

Those are reportedly the words uttered by Pope John Paul II in mid-September, trying to cast out demons possessing a 19-year-old Italian woman who babbled in tongues and carried on in a state of hysteria at the Vatican, according to the Italian newspaper, "Il Messaggero." The paper claimed that the woman spoke "in a cavernous voice" and displayed "superhuman strength."

Rev. James LeBar, an exorcist and Catholic priest from Hyde Park, New York, said the incident actually happened, offering an account on the Newsweek.com website:

"According to the report I got from Rome, the woman had been having an exorcism by Father Gabrielle Amorth [the Pope's chief exorcist] the day before," Rev. LeBar told Newsweek.com. "And then she went into the audience, and when the Pope was giving the final blessing, that apparently it was too much for the demons and they erupted.

"She displayed great strength and spoke in languages that she wasn't studying. Afterward, the Pope brought her into another room. He spent about half an hour with her, praying... The next day, one of the bishops and Father Amorth continued the exorcism on the young lady."

No Dice

Unfortunately, the demons refused to vacate the premises. Rev. LeBar said the Pope and his crew had to be content with subduing the devils for the meantime. "Exorcism is a process; it doesn't work just in one moment here and there. It sometimes takes a long time. The Pope was part of the process."

What about the young lady? The exorcisms continued, with Rev. LeBar noting that demons can be "very stubborn" about giving up their turf. He added that it can take a number of priests, working in shifts over several days to get a demon to move on. Time magazine reports that it was the third exorcism conducted by the Pope since the late '70s.

Rev. LeBar has personally been involved in 40 exorcisms and estimates that an average of 25 occur each year in New York City alone. This year, a bishop in Chicago authorized the city's first exorcism in years, and Time claims that the practice is gaining a revival nationwide.

Nor is the Catholic Church alone in conducting exorcisms. The priest confirms that Protestant churches conduct even more of the casting-out rituals than Catholics. "You have some of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and what I would call splinter churches doing exorcisms right and left."

The ABC's of Exorcism

Exorcism seems to be as old as religion itself. Shamans conducted exorcisms before the advent of organized religion, intervening in the spirit realm on behalf of their followers. In some cultures, illness and bad luck were thought to be the work of demons which could be cast out by a holy man.

There are also records of exorcisms conducted in ancient Babylon and Assyria. "In one, the exorcist made a figurine of the demon and uttered special word while destroying the image. In another, the exorcist made a figurine of the possessed person and asked the demon to leave the body of the person and instead occupy the figure," reports the Reader's Digest Illustrated Dictionary of Bible Life and Times.

The Bible mentions numerous exorcisms, with the most famous practitioner being Jesus Christ. "And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly," reports Matthew in his book, 17:18. In another case, Jesus cures a possessed man who babbles a pig-like language. He also gave the power of exorcism to the Apostles who roamed the ancient world spreading the gospel. Casting out demons was popular throughout the first century, A.D., reports the Dictionary of Bible Life.

Today's Catholic exorcism ritual dates back to the 14th century, reports Rev. LeBar. Major revisions of the ritual were made in 1614, with minor changes made in 1962, at which point the English language was allowed in lieu of Latin.

Those Darned Demons

Prior to the life of Jesus, demons were considered free-ranging evil spirits. But with the dawn of Christianity, demons came to be seen as the forces of Satan -- literally bad angels who had been cast out of heaven in a war against God and his loyal angels. Satan (Lucifer) and his fallen angels were angered that they had been given second-banana status by God, who favored of an inferior creation: human beings. In what plays out like a bad case of sibling rivalry, the fallen angels insisted that humans worship themselves instead of their Creator. This war was the subject of John Milton's epic poem, "Paradise Lost."

Exorcism goes to the heart of Christian theology because after the death and resurrection of Jesus, God exalted his son above the angels, according to the Catholic and Protestant catechisms. The exaltation of Jesus gave him authority over the angels -- including the evil angels, or demons.

In Christian exorcisms, the demon is commanded in the name of Jesus to state his name and the hour and date of his departure in a ritual which can take several days. Obtaining a name and departure time is sort of like forcing the demon to "say uncle" and admit that possession is a lost cause. The use of holy water, incense and incantations may also be involved.

Unfortunately, demons can be obstinate about their eviction notices, and picky about who's in charge. The biblical book of Acts notes that when a non-Christian exorcist tried to cast out a devil, "the evil spirit said to them in reply, 'Jesus I know... but who are you?'" (Acts 19:15).

The Devil & Mental Illness

"Modern commentators have theorized that episodes of possession by demons actually involved illnesses like epilepsy, but the authors of the Gospels would not have drawn such a distinction," notes the Dictionary of Bible Life.

Just as tribes of the Congo and Central Africa still attribute disease with hundreds of evil, mean-spirited gods lurking in every tree, rock and animal, so too did ancient exorcists find demons to be a handy way of explaining mental illness and convulsive disorders.

Because of sensitivity towards mental illness (schizophrenics are notoriously affected by religious hysteria), the Catholic Church requires that every candidate for an exorcism receive a complete psychological and psychiatric evaluation. Priests wishing to conduct exorcisms must also receive the go-ahead of their bishop.

Still, there are critics who feel that religious practitioners are messing with something best left to the mental health profession:

"Most, if not all, cases of alleged demonic possession of humans probably involve either people with brain disorders ranging from epilepsy to schizophrenia and Tourette's syndrome, or people whose brains are more or less healthy but who are unfortunate enough to be sucked into playing a social role with very unpleasant consequences," claims author Robert Todd Carroll in The Skeptic's Dictionary. "In any case, the behaviors of the possessed resemble very closely the behaviors of those with electrochemical, neurochemical or other physical disorders."

Do's & Don't's

Speaking of mental illness: in 1995, an Ontario woman was found guilty of killing her two-year-old granddaughter by forcing water down her throat in an attempt to exorcise a demon. The woman believed the girl was possessed because the child's estranged father wore a ring with two snakes on it and had "the light in his eyes" which signified demonic possession.

Then there's the 1998 case of the Argentine soccer team which conducted an exorcism on its playing field to drive out the demons which stood in the way of making it to the championships... Some things may be difficult to explain in psychological terms, however. The Roman Ritual of the Catholic Church offers some "General Rules" for exorcists:

"... The exorcist should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from some illness, especially one of a psychological nature. Signs of possession may be the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange language or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future and hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject's age and natural condition; and various other conditions which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence."

Don't Read This...

... if you're planning to see the re-release of the film, "The Exorcist."

In "The Exorcist," a bestseller by William Peter Blatty, a Jesuit priest named Father Damien Karras is summoned after all medical and psychiatric hope is lost for curing a possessed child named Regan. Father Karras enters the girl's bedroom, "almost flinching backward at the pungent stench of moldering exrement that hit him in the face like a palpable blast."

It's a bad scene, with Regan having been tortured and scratched by the devil inside her.

"... Then his eyes locked, stunned, on the thing that was Regan, on the creature that was lying on its back in the bed, head propped against a pillow while eyes bulging wide in their hollow sockets shone with mad cunning and burning intelligence, with interest and with spite as they fixed upon his, as they watched him intently, seething in a face shaped into a skeletal, hideous mask of mind-bending malevolence. Karras shifted his gaze to the tangled, thickly matted hair; to the wasted arms and legs; the distended stomach jutting up so grotesquely; then back to the eyes: they were watching him... pinning him..."

Although he's been warned of the persuasive powers of the devil by the Roman Ritual, Father Karras enters into a dialogue with the demon possessing Regan and is tortured by the monster's knowledge of his family secrets. The demon even has the ability to read the priest's mind. They enter into a battle of wits and logic, discussing history, theology and the future.

After a monumental but fruitless struggle with the demon possessing the girl, Father Karras draws the devil into his own body and -- well, read the book or see the film if you want to know how it ends. And hope to God you never need an exorcism.

The simple exorcism text of Pope Leo XIII can be found on the web at www.truecatholic.org/exorcismsimple.htm.

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