Exorcists say that real life and the movies can coincide, but rarely do

Exorcists say that real life and the movies can coincide, but rarely do

Exorcists say that real life and the movies can coincide, but rarely do

Anthony Hopkins stars in a scene from the 2011 movie "The Rite." (Credit: CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Hollywood invention aside, real-world exorcists say that the actual practice is a lot more mundane.

ROME – Illius enim te urges potéstas (usually translated into English as “the power of Christ compels you”) is perhaps the best-known line from an 1884 rite of exorcism prayer issued under Pope Leo XIII, and which continues to be used today by thousands of Catholic priests who practice exorcisms as part of their daily ministry.

Though Hollywood loves to play up the most dramatic forms exorcisms ever take, real-world practitioners say such cases aren’t really routine.

“What we see in the movies are the extreme cases, which are very rare,” said Father Luis Ramírez. “Hence, it doesn’t mean that every exorcism ends as what we see in the theaters. It’s true that there are difficult cases, that can have an impact on us, but this is not what an exorcist deals with every day.”

Speaking with Crux during the 13th annual conference in Rome devoted to “Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation,” Ramírez argued that the movies and the media present exorcism as something “shocking,” with external manifestations that “impact our sensibilities,” but these cases are very few.

Before performing an exorcism, he said, a priest must go through a process of discernment, to determine that the person does in fact need a priest and not a doctor. This conclusion is often reached when, through medicine, “we see no improvement.”

Ramírez is the coordinator of the “Institute Sacerdos.” Since 2002, it has been organizing the Roman seminar, held at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum, run by the Legionaries of Christ. This year, the week-long conference opened on Monday.

Over 290 people, mostly priests but also lay women and men, traveled to Rome to learn about this centuries-old rite. Organizers of the course were quick to clarify, however, that despite the way it’s often portrayed, this is not a “school for exorcists,” since all exorcists in the Catholic Church have to be licensed by their local bishop.

Introducing the seminar, Father José Enrique Oyarzún, director of Sacerdos, said that its continuity over the years responds to the fact that demonic possession is “always a current reality,” despite the fact that the media often misrepresents what the Church believes, “mixing reality with fiction, placing a big question mark on the viewers,” and giving people the impression that the devil is “just a character.”

Yet, he insisted, quoting XIX century French poet Charles Baudelaire: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

He then spoke about papal tradition, and the fact that for the past two centuries they’ve left “no room for doubt” of the devil’s existence, focusing particularly on popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

Speaking of the Argentine pontiff, he quoted paragraph 160 of Francis’s latest apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Among other things, the pope writes that despite the fact that in Jesus’ time epilepsy could be confused with demonic possession, “this should not lead us to an oversimplification that would conclude that all the cases related in the Gospel had to do with psychological disorders and hence that the devil does not exist or is not at work.”

“He is present in the very first pages of the Scriptures, which end with God’s victory over the devil,” the pope wrote in the passage quoted by Oyarzún.

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Oyarzún closed his remarks saying that each Christian is called to “honor one of the fundamental aspects” of being faithful to God, and that’s “counteracting and opposing” the actions of the devil by “proclaiming Jesus as the Savior.”

“We are called to battle the malign, this is God’s will, and we remain faithful to the Christian call to being witnesses of the Gospel,” he said.

On Monday morning, Ramírez served as translator for the keynote speaker, Cardinal Ernest Simoni, from Albania. The 89-year old prelate was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, after the two met during the pope’s trip to Albania in 2015.

Simoni, who spent much of his life imprisoned by the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, has been performing exorcisms for the past 60 years, and was introduced in the conference as one Catholic cardinal whose ministry pivots on the ritual.

The cardinal spoke for over an hour, but most of the attention afterwards was focused on the fact that he spoke about performing exorcisms over the phone.

“There are those who carry out an exorcism through their phones,” he said. “And how is this possible? Through Jesus. We have to give space for him to act. All is possible through Him.”

Seeing that the Church considers that no sacrament can be validly delivered over the phone- or the internet for that matter, as they must be given and received personally- the idea of performing exorcisms through this medium needs some unpacking.

Ramirez told Crux that Simoni was referring to the fact that one can pray over the phone, and many people call the cardinal to pray together.

“If afterwards, there are manifestations of the malign or more challenging situations, the [exorcism] is obviously done in person,” Ramirez said.

When there are such manifestations, he continued, a priest alone cannot do an exorcism, he needs the help of other people- four or five, according to Simoni- who can hold the person down, guarantee they don’t hurt themselves or the priest during the rite.

Profesor Giuseppe Ferrari, secretary of Gris, a group that researches socio-religious information and co-organizes the seminar, introduced it on Monday. Speaking with Crux, he confirmed the fact that there are some exorcists who perform the rite over the phone.

“Whether the practice is orthodox and correct, I wouldn’t be able to say,” he told Crux. “But I do know that some exorcists say it’s effective, these exorcisms performed through a cellular network, over the phone. I’d say at some point we’ll do them over the internet.”

However, like Ramírez, Ferrari believes that “in these contexts, rather than a true and proper exorcism, we’re talking about prayers of liberation. That’s what I presume. But even so, the best thing is that it’s done by a priest with a mandate from the bishop.”

The latter is key when it comes to exorcism: only priests can perform the ritual, “laity absolutely may not perform exorcisms,” and even among priests, only those who’ve been authorized by their bishops can do so.

The lectures of the week-long conference include a wide range of topics such as witchcraft in Africa; magic and the occult in satanic rituals; esoteric and occult bonds of some alternative and energetic therapies; how to understand the signs of demonic possessions; and an actual step-by-step of the exorcism rite.

During his presentation, Simoni insisted that exorcisms should only be practiced after doctors are unable to explain the behavior of a person who’s believed to be possessed, stressing the key role of modern medicine in the discernment process.

Once medical reasons are ruled out, however, he and others who perform exorcisms become “tools” of a higher power.

“It’s Jesus who heals,” Simoni said. “And the Virgin, above all, through the Holy Trinity, that saves the world. When I began this ministry 62 years ago, people told me ‘you do this, you do that,’ and I would say ‘No, it’s Jesus, the father of all men. I’m but another man. The power to do an exorcism through a person of faith is Jesus’.”

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