Mention the word “exorcism” to most people and they will think of the 1973 film of the same title. It means freeing a person possessed by a malignant spirit from alien domination. To a large extent this is true. A dictionary definition will come up with something like: to expel unclean spirits by adjurations, prayers and ceremonies. Certainly an exorcist will resort to the latter devices but what is worthy of note is the expression “unclean spirits”. This is the term used in the Scriptures to refer to evil beings, such as demons or devils. They were unclean because they were not of the communion of Christ, and did not possess the purity which such communion would bring. The very concept of demons and devils was at that time (and when the Gospels were being written) not yet developed; the concept of the DEVIL (with a capital D) or Satan, was however current. So naturally, people virtually co-terminous with Jesus Christ, referred to unclean spirits. The belief in demons followed later, especially in the early years of development of the Catholic Church.
An encyclopedia might give more and speak of a ritual act designed to drive out evil spirits. It is indeed a ritual act, a religious ceremony which possesses many rules and regulations designed to guide and direct the priest along tried and tested paths. It (the reference book) may add that exorcism occurs in primitive societies and in sophisticated religious practice. The latter no doubt refers to religions which have a religious and moral code, not only Christian but other, and generally venerate a “holy book”. As the encyclopedia points out, primitive societies can have an atavistic belief in possession and a corresponding trust in the validity of deliverance. So exorcism is not simply a Christian preserve (or concept) deriving authority from the Scriptures. Some societies have had this as a belief before Christ the Exorcist.
Therefore the idea of possession (and deliverance) has been with us a long time. It would be true to say belief in possession has been in decline since the heyday of the Catholic Church, say since the Renaissance. However, belief in the NEED for EXORCISM under certain circumstances has not diminished. In fact, as the text makes clear, there has been a resurgence of exorcism activity in the present.
One of the misconceptions surrounding exorcism is what exactly it means. Generally accepted is that a possessed person is himself exorcised whereas the fact is that the rite is directed at the invading entity and all adjurations and the eventual expulsion is directed at the invading spirit, NOT the victim.
An exorcist himself is a shadowy figure often believed to have supernatural or at least extraordinary powers. Nothing could be further from the truth. If he has powers, they are God given. Without His aid, and the authority of the Church behind him, the exorcists has no ability to counteract demonic influence. Exorcism is a calling (albeit bestowed by a Bishop) learned by experience and personal preparation.
Much mystery and dare I say it? obfuscation lies behind exorcism, exorcists, and its efficacy. In this study I have tried to clarify certain concepts, throw a personal light on the subject and bring it where it rightly belongs: not in the dust of history, but right here, in the present.
© A.B. Finlay Ph.D