The Catholic priest when performing the ceremony whereby a possessing spirit is driven out of a victim is bound by the strictures of the ancient tome, RITUALE ROMANUM (the Roman Catholic ritual) first issued in the early seventeenth century. This is the common belief and in the main it is a valid view. But it is not the whole story. Departures from strict observance are accepted (and are permissible) depending on appraisal of the situation facing the officiant, the singular circumstances, a personal judgement that the Solemn or the Ordinary version is called for ( often alluded to as the Long or Short forms of the ceremony). Often the deciding factor is whether it is an exorcism of a person or a place. And uncertainty does come into it, it must be said. What I must emphasis is that mere personal predeliction does NOT come into it: variation from the norm must always be based on circumstance. In addition, it may be the composition of the “backup” team that can influence procedures; or the deliverance group actively involved in the ritual when in the presence of a sufferer. It is in the light of this statement that all of the subsequent matter in this chapter is to be understood.

          Blatty’s 1972 book THE EXORCIST is still the most powerful written recreation of an exorcism (and the film based on it was equally powerful) but I have some comments to make on both. The book and film were of course intended to appeal to sensationalism and as such were not true reflections of reality. (It must be realised that the real, original victim was a boy but the gender was changed to permit more lurid detail.) A case has even been made out that the episode was entirely make-belief and that Blatty’s book is not so much faction as fiction. Be this as it may, there is no doubt that in general, the story does relect much of the reality of “true” exorcisms; where I would take issue is in the element of exaggeration, the “over-the-top” depiction. Another criticism is that fundamentally the book and more so the film, did not emphasise the essentially spiritual nature of the “release” (or restoration) of the victim from evil – an intrinsically religious experience…which seemed to have no lasting effect on the victim’s family at the denoument.

          Batty clearly would have us believe that here we have a case of demon possession: there is no other interpretation of Blatty’s words. Blatty himself tells of his reading of the incident in an American newspaper which sparked off his fictionalised account of demon possession and the attempts to release the victim. One or two cases of suspect evil possession are mirrored in Blatty’s novel but much of the detail seems over elaborated. The foul language, the contortion of the features, the frequent spitting are however not exaggerations. They are all too often encountered.

          Blatty speaks of the room becoming cold; of a muffled pounding and throbbing sound. For a moment the demonic entity seemed to have retreated and then came back with renewed force. Particularly desiring to affront, the demon would break into insulting, taunting speech addressed to the exorcist. One of the exorcist priests, Merrin, continued to pray.

          Of course as we have stated the exorcist has always to be aware of cases of potential fraudulent possession. Many of the celebrated instances in history are now PERCEIVED as being feigned cases…maybe of hysteria. Aldous Huxley’s significant novel telling the story of the epidemic of possession in seventeenth century France THE DEVILS OF LOUDON presents the episode as fraudulent. But in the same book, he writes that he sees nothing intrinsically absurd in the notion that there may be non-human spirits…Nothing, he says, compels us to believe that the only intelligences in the universe are those connected with the bodies of human beings…if this is so, he continues, there seems to be no reason for denying that there may be non-human intelligences…discarnate or associated with cosmic energy in some way in which we are still ignorant.


          It would I think be helpful at this point if we looked at Blatty’s own comments in his account of taking his novel to film (ScreenPress Books, 1998, p 47)

“Is Satan a single personal intelligence? Or a horde of evil entities? We have no reliable data that link him [as Satan] to possession. Even in terms of my novel, I never knew the demon’s identity. I doubt he [was] Satan and a spirit of the dead. Perhaps he is/was the spirit of the south-west wind, Pazuzu…I know only that he is real and powerful and evil and one of many – and aligned with whatever is opposed to love.”

          Thomas Allen’s 1993 book POSSESSED gives what purports to be “the true story” of this most famous exorcism, (allegedly) based on a discovered diary belonging to one of the priests involved.

          Allen tells of the preliminary attempts to communicate on a “normal” level with the disturbed person [here known as Robbie]. The initial attempt to get the sufferer to examine his conscience and to make an act of contrition is par for the course. This seemed to be successful. Both priests (the protagonists in the drama) were carrying copies of the ROMAN RITUAL – whose importance we have mentioned earlier. Bowdern (the name given here), the (chief) exorcist, decided to stick to the letter of the Manual, appropriate in his judgement to the circumstances. Bowdern began his readings in Latin from the gospels, psalms and other prayers. Calls on Christ to aid were (and are) followed by summoning the help of the angels and saints. Calls for deliverance by the exorcist by the power of the Lord are refrained by the others present: “O Lord deliver us”.


          After this litany, a mixture of threat, admonishment, persuasion, the exorcist deems the moment right for the ultimate commands to the demon: “Praecipio tibi: I command you!” The victim may scream, squirm and shake. The injunctions may become more strident: the possessing spirit is addressed as “spiritus immunde”: as evil spirit.

          Unnerving scratches forming identifiable letters may form on the tormented body – as apparently they did in Robbie’s case. This phenomenon is not always encountered but when it does, an explanation rational or otherwise is hard to fathom. Usually the marks, exorcists say, are self-inflicted, surreptitiously.

“Lay hold of the dragon, the ancient serpent…and cast him bound into the abyss…” The adjurations continue with the ancient words. Signs of the cross are made over the recumbent body. Addressing the demon the priest insists: “It is He who commands you, Satan; pay heed and tremble…”

          The ensuing struggle is like a battle of wills; it is an exhausting business. No-one knows if there is going to be just this battle or whether it is just the preliminary skirmish in a long drawn out war…

          Admonitions to depart the present scene and to yield to Christ follow and are repeated at frequent intervals as are signs of the cross as indicated in the Roman Ritual. The commands and speech on the part of the exorcist are entirely addressed to the “immundissime spiritus”, most evil spirit, possessing the victim.

          “The longer you delay your departure, the heavier your punishment will be, since it is not men whom you despise, but Him, the Ruler over all…” Attempts are made to chasten the evil spirit. Holy water is often sprinkled or poured over the usually somnolent figure at this time.

          Periods of quiescence on the part of the sufferer may occur and may go on for some time. The experienced exorcist knows he is not finished. Maybe the beginning has gone smoothly, that’s all. The final prayer of exorcism has still to be said. It is quite lengthy and largely is a repetition of previous adjurations in which commands to yield and to be gone are characteristic.

          When weird behaviour by the suddenly awake or animate victim abruptly supervenes…you know this is only the first battle! Prayer and faith are the sustaining watchwords: there is nothing else.


          Exorcists are aware of personal danger in conducting their office. There are many instances (reputedly) of spiritual (even physical) attack on ministers by the evil entity who in such circumstances appear to regard them, the clerics, as the real target. Sometimes it seems as if the demon wants to “take over” the exorcist and is using the body of the victim as a host or base from which to launch his attack. Certainly in the case of the “Robbie” exorcism, the officiating priests were aware of this potential happening.

          Strength of faith is paramount. For the Catholic priest his faith in the precepts of the Church must never waver. This is one reason why Catholic exorcists always feel that their ministrations will be more efficacious if the demoniac is converted to Catholicism. The “Ritual” no-where suggests this but it can be inferred from the sentiments expressed. Baptism for example is desirable as a basis on which to build; receiving of penance and Holy Communion within the one, holy and apostolic Church is clearly only possible to communicant members of the RC faith.

          Attempts at the above (conversion) may or may not appear to be satisfactory. The prime result the exorcist is seeking is the answer to the question addressed to the demon which asks: “Say what your name is and tell the day and hour you will exit.” This is always asked but not at first always answered. Eventually the hope is that one will get a reply.

          A case such as that of Robbie was clearly one that necessitated the solemn exorcism (not the Ordinary). It must be understood that the (Catholic) Church) allows only properly authorized priests to exercise this function. (The choice of such priests we shall go into later.) Imprudent action must be avoided at all costs. As well as dangers – to priest and patient – there is the possiblity of calling up what F.X. Maquart calls in his article on exorcism and diabolical possession, “a diabolical mythomania” by which one can “Call the devil and you’ll see him; or rather not him but a portrait made up of the sick man’s ideas of him.” (p. 179 of the SATAN compendium) The exorcist, as Tonquedec points out, has to arrive at a diagnosis and then apply the remedy. He must avoid two extremes: not to forget that the decision he makes is a practical one; on the other hand, he must take into account all data and conditions which may influence his decision subsequently.


          One of the first prescriptions in the ROMAN RITUAL warns against believing in possession too easily. Above all…caution! The exorcist must know HOW to recognise the signs whereby the possessed may be distinguished from those suffering from mental or emotional disorders. Reading between the lines, what the Ritual is saying is that, in Maquart’s words, the exorcist has to avoid any false application of his theological science. “Being habituated to theological reasoning…his diagnoses will take on a moral complexion…he needs to establish the facts [not be duped] which necessitates a critical examination of the patient, and an objective criticism of his utterances themselves. Ater that, he will need to eliminate every natural cause of the manifestations presumed to be diabolic.” (p. 190)


          As we said before, the Roman Ritual lists three specific signs as a guide to true possession. These do help to make the exorcist’s task more manageable. They are so important that we should remind ourselves of them. They are: the use or understanding of an unknown tongue; knowledge of distant or hidden facts; exhibitions of physical powers exceeding the age or condition of the subject. When these phenomena are exhibited by the same subject, it is reasonable to suppose that one is in the presence of a person possessed. On the lowest level these things are preternatural; on the highest they are supernatural. Science is usually powerless to explain these phenomena; but maybe theology or religion can. In a case where knowledge of an umknown or foreign language is displayed or of levitation which does happen on occasion, these may be attributed sensibly to non-human power; if as usually is the case, the phenomena tend to an evil end, “the theologian will legitimately conclude to the intervention of the devil”. (SATAN, p. 198)

          At the time when the Roman Ritual was written, little was known about mental, psycho-somatic, disorders or indeed about any maladies. Despite several revisions this still in the main reflects the outlook. “Encroaching spirits,” to use Maurey’s words, alter the characteristics of the afflicted person and can result in a apparently changed personality and can enter when the resistance of the victim is low – for whatever reason. The multiplicity of “presentations” of which we are now aware has been comprehensively summed up by Carl Wickland in his 1974 book about his work treating mental patients in America. These encroachments “simulate multiple or disassociated personalities and frequently cause apparent insanity. This may vary in degree from a simple mental aberration to all types of dementia, hysteria, epilepsy, melancholia…idiocy, religious and suicidal mania. This may also include amnesia, psychic malfunction, dipsomania, immorality, bestiality and other forms of criminality”. (p. 17)


          Of course the Ritual is talking about the procedures for the Solemn or greater exorcism – where many of the above manifestations are often encountered. The Minor exorcism mainly takes the form of a prayer to God, invoking the name of Christ, and is considered suitable for instances that do not in the judgement of the priest, appear to involve fundamental psychic disturbance, such as demon/diabolic possession. Even with the guidance of the Ritual the Catholic Church feels that other rules are necessary, as for instance the appointment of one particular cleric by the area bishop to “administer” exorcisms.

          Generally speaking the exorcism of places is an occasion for the Minor exorcism – unless it is suspected that there is case of demon infestation, which is usually rare. Exorcisms of places and of people do have different procedures and different forms of words – and different prayers. For example, at the entrance to a place or building an appropriate prayer is said, and water is blessed for sprinkling in the various rooms, which have their own forms of address. A house which needs the ministrations of a priest is blessed, prayers are said and the Sacrament of Holy Communion said. If an “official” exorcism is thought necessary, prayers and implorations are voiced of which the following is typical:

          “In your love O Lord, enter this place which is part of your dominion. As you make your home in the hearts of your faithful people, grant also that in this home/place your presence may be known and that the evil spirits be banished for ever; we ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” At the end (when it is believed the place has been delivered) people living in there are usually blessed with the laying on of hands.

          The exorcism of people (who wish to be “freed”) tends to be more complex, but only insofar as one is dealing with a human being who may react in unexpected ways! Readings and prayers are first said, then a confession of sins is usually attempted and a questioning of the patient/victim/sufferer to try to elicit what the person wants, and an attempt is made to get him/her to renounce evil or evil practices. The priest asks the person to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and after this the priest may lay his hand upon the person and say a prayer of which an example is given here:

          “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father who loved us and in his grace has given us unfailing courage and a firm hope, encourage and comfort you , that you may always do and say what is good. May the Lord who is faithfull strengthen you and keep you safe from the evil one. And now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.

          The above is appropriate for Minor exorcisms.

          Although, as we have remarked earlier, in the present day, exorcisms involving places tend to be more numerous than those involving persons; it is not overwhelmingly so. Neither can it be discerned that there is an age predominance, i.e. young versus old or a societal divide or sectarian imbalance. However, what can be asserted is that there is a predominance of afflicted females (statistically revealed over the years) but is not now so marked as it was. Why this should be so is not clear. It may be that females are more spiritually in tune with basic matters or that they see more clearly than men things sub specie aeternatis as the seventeenth century metaphysical poets claimed i.e. in the perspective of eternity. And of course throughout the ages women have been unequally treated and this has left its psychological scars.


          It must be admitted however that although many of these instances of possession in the past were probably due to fraud or illness, the Catholic Church’s view at the moment, is immutable: diabolic possession does exist. Belief in possession means that “the ground is always prepared for the manifestation of such states” [of exorcism]. (Oesterreich). There have been of course many critics of this particular Catholic belief in the light of advances in medical science. One reply would be to say that a devil would be capable of imitating all sorts of maladies; there would be, as Oesterreich points out, no medical criterion therefore to distinguish natural maladies from those attributable to the demon.

          Hundreds of accounts of instances of possession exist in the literature. Perhaps we can turn to one for illustration (and light relief!) taken from a story Nevius (mentioned in a previous chapter) tells – which he got via a French missionary, (in the late nineteenth century). The account goes as follows:

          Would you belief it? The villages have been converted! The devil is furious and is playing all sorts of tricks. During the fortnight’s teaching which I have just completed there have five or six cases of possession. Our catechumens [people undergoing instruction] with holy water drive out the devils and cure the sick. I have seen some marvellous things. The devil is a great help to me in converting the heathen; as in the time of Our Lord although the Father of Lies, he cannot help speaking the truth. For instance, one poor possessed man executed innumerable contortions and shrieked aloud: ‘Why dost thou preach the true religion? I cannot bear to have my disciples taken away by thee.’ ‘What is thy name?’ asked the catechist [religious teacher]. After some refusals, ‘I am the envoy of Lucifer’. ‘How many are you?’ ‘We are twenty-two.’ Holy Water and the sign of the cross delivered this demoniac.


          The Roman Ritual did not only spell out the procedures for conducting exorcisms but gave the rite for the ordination of exorcists. Bishops who conducted the ordinations had to warn the ordinands that they themselves must be free from all uncleanliness and evil and that they must be aware of the devil’s desire to dominate them. They were then given the power to command spirits. The exorcist, it said, himself had to be a special person “humble …and courageous”. Decisions had to be made by the priest on the spot, as it were; and the spot should be in private, preferably a church. The words of the Church had to be used; and the demon himself was not to be allowed to speak at length. The specific prayers and phraseology of the exorcistic rite were laid down especially those where the demon is commanded to leave. The exorcism was itself to be directed at the demon; prayers were directed to the victim to help banish the evil spirit. It was essential that the possessed knew that Christ was trying to help him. Rites and objects were identified: signs of the cross, holy water, the employment of sacraments.

          The rite of exorcism as laid down by the Roman Ritual (given in detail in the appendices as laid down in the RITUAL authorized by Pope Paul V 1605-1621) begins with the priest, suitably attired in surplice and violet stole, sprinkling the “demoniac” with holy water who may have been bound if deemed violent. The priest may also exhale deeply symbolic of invoking the Holy Spirit. He then kneels and begins praying to God, saying first the Lord’s Prayer. A reading from St. John’s gospel normally follows: “In the beginning…” After this he commands the devil “praecipio tibi” to depart. (All of this is spoken in Latin – or used to be invariably.)

I command you every evil spirit, in the name of God the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ his only son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, that harming no-one you depart from this creature of God and return to the place appointed you, there to remain for ever.

          Then long extracts from the Gospels are read, more prayers said, signs of the cross made, and more addresses to the devil or demon of which the tenor is: Give way to Christ, evil spirit! All this is quite lengthy and takes some time. It may be that the procedure with the prayers will have to be repeated if it is not thought the possessed is “delivered”.

          The priest keeps in mind the “signs of possession” indicated in the Ritual and faced with these (or some of them) may feel that he is beginning to triumph over them and will continue for hours if need be. The belief (and hope!) is that the afflicted will tire, become calmer, and thereby give hope to the exorcist that deliverance is at hand. Although it may seem as if the priest is somewhat mechanically following instructions, this is far from the reality, as throughout the ritual, the exorcist has to be attuned to the slightest reaction on the part of the sufferer, and ready to adapt or modify the approach to suit the circumstances. He must also be aware of anything happening in his environment: other objects in the room; the bystanders or support team. Expertise, like in any endeavour, is built up only by experience. What the rules do is to limit the possibility of making a mistake.

          In the process of performing the ritual, oil, water and salt are used as well as holy objects, all of which need to be “exorcised” before they can be employed. The Holy Water is made from a mixture of salt and water. The salt is exorcised first and then blessed. The water is exorcised and blessed. Both are then mixed while a blessing is said followed by a prayer. The belief in the almost magical properties of salt (as a preservative against corruption) is ancient; equally ancient is the belief that Holy Water can scald evil spirits (or the bodies they inhabit). This preparation of Holy Water is done in the presence of the all concerned as a visible symbol of the Christian rite and prayers. If the patient appears at all still disturbed what are called “breast-plate” prayers are said while the exorcist lays his hands on the person’s head.Breast-plate prayers are little more than ejaculatory utterances said at times when extra comfort or protection is thought necessary. A crucifix is nearly always used also, in the course of the rite and sprinkling with the blessed water is resorted to if any unexpected bruising on the victim’s skin is discerned or any pains are felt.

          Concluding an exorcism is however far from the end of the matter, as we shall see. “After-care” is essential, which means the leading of a Christian life in the future preferably in the arms of the Catholic Church, and partaking regularly of the sacraments. Social services have a part to play, but paramount as far as the RC priest is concerned is the supportive ambience of the communicant Church. The immediate concern is that no sudden departures are possible to the patient and that he/she is not left alone.

          Clearly such a book as the ROMAN RITUAL contains a great deal of relevant matter. One section particularly is that concerning the exorcist himself and his conduct during the ritual. This is too long to reproduce here but as it is of great significance it is incorporated as one of the appendices.

          All that I write here in this book on exorcism is from the perspective of a Roman Catholic priest. But I would be the first to say that it is by no means the only valid perspective. Apart from the many differing Christian views of the subject there are just as many (if not more) from other non-Christian religions’ point of view. And of course there are numerous practitioners of forms of exorcism by people who would not describe themselves as especially religious – or believers at all! One only has to look at the numbers advertising themselves on the Internet as “private” exorcists who will – for a fee- banish all your troubles. This seems to me to be debasing for commercial gain an essentially religious ritual – where Christ and the Devil or Good and Evil play little or no part.

          Richard Deutch’s book EXORCISM has a particularly interesting section where he relates some conversations he had with modern exorcists. (His Part 3) Two are male and both are “professional” religious people. The two females are writers mainly on religious (in its broadest sense) subjects and have personal experience of exorcising, or delivering, people and places. They are not particularly motivated by religious or dogmatic concerns.


          The fundamental difference between the non-Christian exorcist and the Christian is that in the latter case the priest invokes God or Christ to aid him whereas in the former the exorcist tends not to see Satan as an alien, implacable entity but as a force whose help can be enlisted…maybe. Some of these non-Christian exorcists describe themselves as witches and others claim psychic powers and the gift of healing (spiritual or emotional). It does seem though that whatever the persuasion, people who practise exorcism do believe in demons, although some of them may wrap it up in euphemisms like “possessing forces” , “negative energy” or “anti -life force”.

          The RC priest however is left in no doubt regarding the reality of the devil ! This is especially impressed on him in his induction as an exorcist by his bishop. (See appendix for detail.) It is taken for granted that the ordinand is familiar with the Roman Ritual. Exorcism for him is simply another form of prayer to God who will give aid in the struggle against evil.

          (I have mentioned that exorcism of places tends nowadays to be more frequent than exorcism of people. More detail concerning this aspect of exorcism is contained in an appendix.)

          Familiarity with the wording of the original Ritual however is not enough. One also has to be au fait with the crucial changes made in the twentieth century especially those made in the revisions of the last fifty years. Like those made in the CATHOLIC CATECHISM over more or less the same recent time, some are very significant. A more cautious, some might say a more reticent approach is evident. For example, the wording concerning “melancholia” is now changed to “mental illnesses”; and that concerning certain symptoms which “are signs ” (of demon presence) now becomes “might be” (signs). Although many symptoms once believed to indicate possession are now interpreted as psychological disturbances of one kind or another there still remain the enigmatic abilities often displayed by sufferers: speaking foreign tongues, knowing the unknown, possessing abnormal powers (or power). Included in this list might be the ability (or given power) to levitate, which not infrequently is alluded to in cases of possession. Even poltergeist phenomena are now explained in psychological terms – but are we really sure? The same goes for clairvoyance or ESP (Extra-sensory perception); again, are these now explained away? Telepathy between the “patient” and the exorcist is also now thought to account for much of the puzzling ablities displayed, as undoubtedly the relationship between the two is very close. This may be so, but it is hardly open to proof. One thing we can be sure of is the fact that these strange abilities do not continue into “normal” life, i.e. after the exorcism, and therefore it might be concluded that as these powers appear only to be displayed when the person yet remains “undelivered” the phenomena are true indications of a supernatural agency – of demonic possession.

          A symptom that always seemed to me to be indicative of an alternative power residing in the afflicted person was a display of abhorrence towards anything sacred. This was quite marked and differed in its intensity from the repulsion shown to anything (or anyone) vaguely religious.


          Fraudulent or simulated possession (for whatever reason) has by its very nature no devil or evil spirit to expel and therefore must end in a perceived failure on the part of the exorcist. Eventually, however, the charade comes to an end usually when the “victim” feels he or she has extracted as much attention (call it what you will) from the situation. If of course the person is mentally unbalanced then the fraudulent situation may continue off and on for years. If the charade persists then it is possible to conclude the person is mad and may need institutionalisation. Often it must be said there is some sexual aspect to cases of (suspected) possession: it may just be an emotional disharmony in a relationship; it may be a type of (sexual) frustration; it may be a manifestation that has come to the fore in this overt manner, of obsession or guilt, over some sexual matter. Sometimes one is drawn to the conclusion that an exorcism ritual performed on a “patient” is a type of therapy for him, and heals not because a possessing spirit has been expelled but because the person has derived comfort from it. Put another way, for a time the person has been in a limelight which ordinarily he could not attain.

          We have mentioned earlier that much importance is attached by the RC faith to getting the possessing spirit to give its name and then to engage in some sort of “conversation” with the exorcist – provided the spirit does not attempt to monopolise the exchange. I must say here that I have never encountered such conversations, though the exchange of a few words was common. Naturally, the replies or rejoinders received were accepted on face value though with the reservation that a form of trickery or hoax was being perpetrated despite an unnatural tone of voice and delivery. Looking at the copious literature on possession one can read many accounts where quite lengthy conversation between exorcist, spirit and sometimes the possessed takes place.

          One of the major problems associated with a belief in demon possesssion is as Canon Pearce-Higgins (a noted practitioner in the field of exorcism) so pertinently voiced, that if demons and the Devil really exist in their own right i.e. with the power to dominate and sway where they like, then the spectre of Dualism rears its head, a riddle that has been with mankind for centuries. The essence of Christianity is belief in monotheism – so both concepts cannot be valid. Scripture however tells us that demons were partly created from the Fallen Angels and as such are still creatures of God. Nevertheless, some misgivings remain – and more so if the story of the fallen angels is given little credence!

          Another problem (as if there were not enough!) facing the exorcist is his consciousness of the possiblity of creating a drama by provoking symptoms, and thereby making an already perilous situation worse. We are all conscious of time pressures also, especially where a team is concerned. Faced with these pressures it is possible sometimes to think that a situation has not always been given (by the exorcist) the time it deserved. In this respect it may be that today’s endeavours do not match up to yesterday’s. Martin Ebon in his book DEVIL’S BRIDE, provides a few antidotes to soul-searching. It is worthy of full quotation. (p. 227)

          “The exorcist must believe in his own calling; he must be convinced that his manner of treatment is correct; he must throw himself whole-heartedly into the healing process; he must proceed regardless of possible ambivalent feelings about the patient; he must be driven only by his passionate desire to effect a cure – to oust the illness.”

          The belief of the Catholic Church is that all categories are eligible for the rite of exorcism i.e. Christian as well as pagan (though this was not always the belief) and that Christians who are not possessed might still need to be freed from oppression. This is another instance where the Solemn or Major exorcism should be differentiated from the Minor (or Short form), that is to say, that only in cases of possession (suspected) is Solemn exorcism allowed, and when it is performed by an ordained priest, authorized by the diocesan Bishop.

          In the early 1970s, the automatic bestowal of the order of exorcist was dropped (by Pope Paul VI) although the same Pope made it clear that belief in Satan’s existence was as strong as ever: “It is contrary, ” he said, “to the teaching of the Bible and the Church to refuse to recognise the existence of such a reality” [evil: a living, spiritual being].

          The Catholic Church still emphasises exorcism as the correct term rather than deliverance. Exorcism is basically a COMMAND to an evil spirit to depart backed up by God’s authority; deliverance suggests a healing prayer by which we ASK God to heal.


          Here we may say something about the “team” needed by the exorcist. The subject will be dealt with in more detail in the next chapter. One obvious reason for having a team is to provide a variety of experience and expertise and a mix of genders, especially where the patient is a woman, who may be very disturbed and sexually explicit. It is also helpful to have as “back-up” another experienced priest who can take over the prayers if the ritual has proved particularly onerous. It is also wise to have a number of people (Christians) who can if needed be relied on to help restrain an unruly patient, especially if they have spiritual authority. The most important point of having a team is however to be able to confide in them in the first place, to talk over the problems, to decide on the most appropriate approach.

          The person who may take over should be a younger priest who is being trained in exorcism. An essential member of the team is a medical person who alone can give any medications needed in the course of the ritual.

          It is important to note that exorcism IS a ritual, not a sacrament. We have mentioned the review of 1952, where changes were kept to a minimum. An updating was in fact made in January, 1999, the first since the 1614 promulgation. It was felt that certain practices of the Church (concerning exorcism) ought to be brought up to date and in so doing laid emphasis on consultation with medical authorities. However belief in the existence of the devil was still required: it is “an element of faith and Catholic doctrine”. It is clear from the tenor of the statement that the Vatical believes many of today’s troubles are due to Satan.

          Although the form of the ritual is largely unchanged, the emphasis is on caution before determining if a full exorcism is necessary. A key sentence is: “The exorcist will decide with prudence after consulting with other spiritual experts, and …with experts in medical and psychiatric science”.

          The new version was introduced by a Vatican spokesman who stated that there was plenty of evidence that the Devil was still very much at work and that therefore there was yet a need for exorcism. In the introduction, the reality of diabolical possession is clearly recognised, and calls attention to beings “called demons, who are opposed to God”. This new rite, the document claims, confirms “the victory of Christ and the power of the Church over the demons.”


          An important revision was the replacement of one of the original chapters of the Roman Ritual by new matter. Introductory paragraphs reiterated the traditional view of the coming into existence of the devil and his demons (the Fallen Angels, the temptation of Eve), the death and resurrection of Christ and the passing on of the power to expel spirits. It goes on to remind readers that Baptism is a form of exorcism. It acknowledges that possession is hard to understand, but that there is little we do understand, and that the imploration of God will ultimately be successful. The time-honoured “signs” of possession are said to be not necessarily infallible guides but may be attributable to other causes. If it is decided that a person is not truly possessed the Church will nevertheless provide spiritual help. This introduction reminds the exorcist of the importance of prayer and fasting and the roles which parents, friends, spiritual and community people may take.

          “Jesus Christ”, we are told, “drove out demons and liberated people who were possessed by evil spirits to make space for him in that person.” Exorcism “has its departure point in the faith of the Church, according to which Satan and other evil spirits exist…Catholic doctrine teaches us that demons are fallen angels as a result of their sin, and that they are spiritual beings with great intelligence and power.”


          Catholic priest exorcists have to believe that the power to expel spirits has been handed down to them in unbroken procession from Christ himself. It was understood for many years that almost any Christian could exorcise (particularly in the early centuries of Christianity) but as time progressed the attitude came more and more to be taken that only priests could discharge this function, and these had to be authorized by the diocesan Bishop. It did not end there, however. The present position of the Catholic Church is that unbroken authority has been handed down only to RC clergy. A concise but explicit summing-up of the argument is given by the statement issued by the Catholic Resource Network who state:

“Jesus can give this authority to anyone as He sees fit. However…it is the prudence of Jesus at this time as expressed by the Church which He founded upon Peter, that only those who are delegated by hierarchical authority are able to have this authority to cast out demons. This is not necessarily prejudicial to the case of someone who in not knowing the need for such authority simply goes ahead and does an exorcism. It is not guaranteed that Jesus will grant the authority of His name to such a person although there is that possibility. And those who would otherwise try to use Jesus’ authority against his will, as expressed by the Church, are in for an unpleasant surprise.”

          In addition, as is generally believed, successful exorcism usually depends on the faith and trust of the victim; as we read in Mark, 9;18, Jesus said to the man who wanted his son to be exorcised (or the demon within him), that with God all things are possible, provided there is faith. Accordingly, the RC Church, throughout its history has resorted to full exorcisms when it believed persons were possessed by evil spirits. Indeed, the Catholic Church (like most other Christian Churches) believes that accounts in the New Testament of the powers of evil spirits are intrinsically true.

          J.F. Cogan’s important work on this subject, DEMON POSSESSION HANDBOOK FOR HUMAN SERVICE WORKERS, deals very thoroughly with demon possession and exorcism and reaches the conclusion (among others) that if a person admits to his mind powers that are not clearly holy, then this person’s mind may be filled by a demon. Clearly, for him, possession by evil spirits is a reality. Deliverance from possession entails primarily the “saving” of the individual (from the power of the devil) by filling him or her with the Holy Spirit (as Cogan refers to it). The position, however, is that for as many believers there are just as many disbelievers or sceptics. As someone who has practised exorcism I had to be a believer – albeit preparing (for the “ceremony” with a sceptic attitude) though I would be the first to say that DEFINING the border line between true possession and the pseudo is fraught with difficulty. The words of Martin Ebon in his book EXORCISM, are apt: “Sincere belief in possession may well have a specific role to play for the possessed and the exorcist, particularly if it provides the right religiocultural setting for effective psychotherapy. But psychophysiological illness with all its fluctuations and even conscious or unconscious fraud cannot be effectively shut out ; the walls that enclose genuine possession are as impenetrable as the human mind”. (p. 104)


          Canon Pearce-Higgins, a notable writer on exorcism and related topics, struggling with the above problem, has proffered the view that there might be a multiplicity of spirits undergoing an evolutionary process which itself need not be seen just in terms of humans, and bodily forms – which reminds us of Aldous Huxley’s view that “intelligences” need not be exclusively linked to humans (as we generally believe) but that there may be other forms of intelligence, will, spiritual power, call it what you like, that are not associated or linked to human beings. Though we cannot prove this thesis,neither can we disprove it.

          ………….. It must be admitted that the doubts that assail the exorcist (and his team) arise from the perception, real or mistaken, that the victim (or patient) is really demanding attention perhaps for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the manifestation takes a sexual form indicating a demand for sensual attention. In such circumstances it is all too easy to see oneself in the role of “saviour” (as Francis MacNutt points out in DELIVERANCE FROM EVIL SPIRITS, chapter “Know your Demon!”) and to allow this to become a preoccupation whereby the minister’s view is clouded by his own emotional needs.

          MacNutt succinctly sums up the “idealistic” motivation versus the “superiority” motivation involved in practising this unusual and difficult calling (of exorcism). He says that the “exorcist-type” man must first and foremost believe in his own calling fully; he must be convinced that his manner of treatment is the only correct and proper means of treatment; he must enter wholeheartedly into the healing process, fighting the invisible foe which is causing the illness; he must proceed to effect a “cure” passionately, regardless of his own maybe ambivalent feelings about the patient. (See the chapter, “Know your Demon!” in DELIVERANCE FROM EVIL SPIRITS.

          In this section, we have looked in some detail at Blatty’s depiction of a case of exorcism in his book which leaves little doubt that here we are confronted with demon possession. Blatty’s own comments are revealing. This examination led into the exorcism ceremony (Roman Catholic) and the stages in it. From this we looked at the prescriptions in the Roman Ritual which exorcists must follow. We read about the “signs” of true possession in a victim and following on from this we described the Major and Minor forms of the rite, which itself led into a look at the exorcism of people and places. The next few paragraphs were concerned with the ordination of the potential exorcist and the holy “aids” he would need to employ during the ceremony. We claimed the change (in recent decades) in some of the wording of the Catholic Cathecism was significant and was indicative of the Church’s changing attitude to (demon) possession. The backup “team” we read, is of paramount importance, particularly in its composition. A updated version of the exorcism rite was promulgated quite recently (January, 1999), which itself followed on from the 1952 updating. Above all, for exorcistic rituals to be “successful” there is a necessity for faith and trust on the part of the “victim” (which accounts for some of the recorded tremendous struggles where the afflicted is not displaying faith). It goes almost without saying that faith is needed by the exorcist! Sceptics should consider whether other forms of “intelligence” exist in the universe which are not tied into human bodies; we have no way of disproving this idea. Equally, we have no way of proving it; maybe instances of possession suggest/indicate existences which are not of this world.

          The exorcism theme is continued next, when we consider the pain-staking and thorough preparation a potential exorcist must go through before he is “let loose” on a victim. This preparation, albeit not so rigorous, is demanded of the backup team which must be selected wisely initially. These initial stages indicate the essential need for consultation with a variety of people expert or experienced in their own field. Equally important in the Church’s eyes is the proper preparation of the sufferer: mentally, emotionally, physically – if at all possible.

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D