The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives



Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Demonology Index

What is Exorcism and How is it Performed?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

To believe in exorcism you must first believe in the devil. Exorcism is the act of driving out or warding off evil spirits from persons, places, or things. The means employed for this purpose are especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demons, commanding them in the name of God to leave the person or the object which is under their malevolent influence.

Among polytheistic religions the use of protective means against the molestation of evil spirits is an essential part of their worship of the deities. The benevolent gods are invoked for whatever help people need. The malevolent gods are propitiated, especially by sacrifice, in order to ward off the harm which these evil deities can perpetrate. Centuries of the history of polytheism show that among these sacrifices have always been children, and even infants, whose lives had to be taken to satisfy the demands of the malicious deities whom the people worshipped. Thus we have record of how literally thousands of children were killed and offered in sacrifice on a single day among the Aztecs in Latin America before the discovery of the new world.

Old Testament

Before the time of Christ, there is no record in the Old Testament of any exorcism being performed by man. Certainly evil spirits were driven out of possessed people. But in every case the exorcism was done either directly by the Lord or by an angel under divine authority.

No doubt there were alleged exorcisms performed by human beings. A record of these deliverances is found in Jewish apocryphal writings. The chief characteristic of these non-biblical Jewish exorcisms was the naming of names believed to be effective in driving out evil spirits. The principal names used were those of the good angels, either alone or in combination with El (God).

It is most significant that there are no recorded exorcisms performed by human beings in the Old Testament Scriptures. The reason is obvious. If there is one characteristic of the New Testament, it is the many deliverances of possessed people by Christ in the Gospels. Furthermore, among the powers which the Savior conferred on His disciples was the power they would have to drive out evil spirits.

New Testament

As we enter the New Covenant, two remarkable phenomena are recorded. The number of possessed persons in the four Gospels is almost beyond counting. Among the evangelists, St. Mark narrates more cases of possession and of deliverance by Christ than in all the other books of the Bible put together.

The second remarkable feature is the hostility of the evil spirit in the possessed persons. This hostility, we may say, began at the opening of Christ’s public ministry when He was tempted three times by the devil.

All the exorcisms performed by Christ were done in an instant. All He had to do was to tell the devil to depart, and the evil spirit left the victim at the Savior’s words.

Not surprisingly, the possessed persons whom Jesus exorcised were afflicted in some externally manifest way. What is crucially important to understand is that the devil has power to injure or harm his victim, both physically and psychologically. Behind this fact is the mysterious providence of God who may allow the evil spirit to harm human beings in their mental or bodily faculties.

One more thing should be mentioned. The deluge of possessions which began with Christ’s coming into the world has set a pattern for all future time, even to the end of the world.

The history of evangelization reveals that as the Gospel begins to be preached in some part of the world, the devil becomes extraordinarily active among the people being evangelized. If there is one characteristic of the evil spirit, it is his hatred of Christ.

Exorcism by the Church

The closing book of the Bible is at once a prophecy and a promise. The Apocalypse predicts the operation of the evil spirit, as the anti-Christ until the end of time. It also reassures the followers of Christ that they will overcome Satan provided they trust in the Savior’s power and are submissive to His divine will. In His parting message to the apostles, He told them, “These signs shall attend those who believe: in my name they shall cast out devils” (Mark 16:17).

In the twenty centuries of Christian history, this promise of the Redeemer has been dramatically fulfilled.

Our focus in this conference is on exorcism in the technical sense of a person authorized by the Church, delivering a person, or a place, or a city from what we call the preternatural malicious influence of the evil spirit.

Understandably only Christ, acting through the Church, has the power to exorcise.

There is an exorcism which is part of the baptismal ritual. But that is not our concern here. We are addressing ourselves to the exercise of delivering persons or places who are possessed or obsessed by the devil.

Just a short clarification. Obsession means that the devil afflicts a person or place externally. Possession is the result of internal influence by the devil without, however, depriving a person the use of free will.

For centuries one of the minor orders before the priesthood was that of exorcist. The Church’s present legislation is very clear:

No one can legitimately perform exorcisms over the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local Ordinary.
Such permission from the local Ordinary is to be granted only to a priest endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life (Canon 1172).

As we see, the faculty to perform an exorcism is now restricted to ordained priests. Moreover, the priests must be outstanding in the virtues identified by the Code of Canon Law.

As might be expected, the norms for the practice of exorcism, laid down by the Church, are detailed and extensive. It is worth quoting them in full.

  1. A priest - one who is expressively and particularly authorized by the ordinary - when he intends to perform an exorcism over persons tormented by the devil, must be properly distinguished for his piety, prudence and integrity of life. He should fulfill this devout undertaking in all constancy and humility, being utterly immune to any striving for human recognition, and relying, not on his own, but on the divine power. Moreover, he ought to be of mature years, and revered not alone for his office but for his moral qualities.

  2. In order to exercise his ministry rightly, he should resort to a great deal more study of the matter (which has to be passed over here for the sake of brevity), by examining approved authors and cases from experience; on the other hand, let him carefully observe the few more important points enumerated here.

  3. Especially, he 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 tongue 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 indications which, when taken together as a whole, build up the evidence.

  4. In order to understand these matters better, let him inquire of the person possessed, following one or the other act of exorcism, what the latter experienced in his body or soul while the exorcism was being performed, and to learn also what particular words in the form had a more intimidating effect upon the devil, so that hereafter these words may be employed with greater stress and frequency.

  5. He will be on his guard against the arts and subterfuges which the evil spirits are wont to use in deceiving the exorcists. For often times they give deceptive answers and make it difficult to understand them, so that the exorcist might tire and give up, or so it might appear that the afflicted one is in no wise possessed by the devil.

  6. Once in a while, after they are already recognized, they conceal themselves and leave the body practically free from every molestation, so that the victim believes himself completely delivered. Yet the exorcists may not desist until he sees the signs of deliverance.

  7. At times, moreover, the evil spirits place whatever obstacles they can in the way, so that the patient may not submit to exorcism or they try to convince him that his affliction is a natural one. Meanwhile, during the exorcism they cause him to fall asleep and dangle some illusion before him, while they seclude themselves, so that the afflicted one appears to be freed.

  8. Some reveal a crime which has been committed and the perpetrators thereof, as well as the means of putting an end to it. Yet the afflicted person must beware of having recourse on this account to sorcerers or necromancers or to use any parties except the ministers of the Church, or of making any use of superstitious or forbidden practice.

  9. Sometimes the devil will leave the possessed person in peace and even allow him to receive the holy Eucharist, to make it appear that he has departed. In fact, the arts and frauds of the evil one for deceiving a man are innumerable. For this reason the exorcist must be on his guard not to fall into this trap.

  10. Therefore, he will be mindful of the words of our Lord (Matthew 17:20), to the effect that there is a certain type of evil spirit who cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting. Therefore, let him avail himself of these two means above all for imploring the divine assistance in expelling demons, after the example of the holy fathers; and not only himself, but let him induce others, as far as possible, to do the same.

  11. If it can be done conveniently the possessed person should be led to church or to some other sacred and worthy place, where the exorcism will be held, away from the crowd. But if the person is ill, or for any valid reason, the exorcism may take place in a private home.

  12. The subject, if in good mental and physical health, should be exhorted to implore God’s help, to fast, and to fortify himself by frequent reception of penance and Holy Communion, at the discretion of the priest. And in the course of the exorcism he should be fully recollected, with his intention fixed on God, whom he should entreat with firm faith and in all humility. And if he is all the more grievously tormented, he ought to bear this patiently, never doubting the divine assistance.

  13. He ought to have a crucifix at hand or somewhere in sight. If relics of the saints are available, they are to be applied in a reverent way to the breast or the head of the person possessed (the relics must be properly and securely encased and covered). One will see to it that these sacred objects are not treated improperly or that no injury is done them by the evil spirit. However, one should not hold the holy Eucharist over the head of the person or in any way apply it to his body, owing to the danger of desecration.

  14. The exorcist must not digress into senseless prattle nor ask superfluous questions or such as are prompted by curiosity, particularly if they pertain to future and hidden matters, all of which have nothing to do with his office. Instead, he will bid the unclean spirit keep silence and answer only when asked. Neither ought he to give any credence to the devil if the latter maintains that he is the spirit of some saint or of a deceased party, or even claims to be a good angel.

  15. But necessary questions are, for example: the number and name of the spirits inhabiting the patient, the time when they entered into him, the cause thereof, and the like. As for all jesting, laughing, and nonsense on the part of the evil spirit - the exorcist should prevent it or contemn it, and he will exhort the bystanders (whose number must be very limited) to pay no attention to such goings on; neither are they to put any question to the subject. Rather they should intercede for him to God in all humility and urgency.

  16. Let the priest pronounce the exorcism in a commanding and authoritative voice, and at the same time with great confidence, humility, and fervor; and when he sees that the spirit is sorely vexed, then he possesses and threatens all the more. If he notices that the person afflicted is experiencing a disturbance in some part of his body or an acute pain or a swelling appears in some part, he traces the sign of the cross over that place and sprinkles it with holy water, which he must have at hand for this purpose.

  17. He will pay attention as to what words in particular cause the evil spirits to tremble, repeating them the more frequently. And when he comes to a threatening expression, he recurs to it again and again, always increasing the punishment. If he perceives that he is making progress, let him persist for two, three, four hours, and longer if he can, until victory is attained.

  18. The exorcist should guard against giving or recommending any medicine to the patient, but should leave this care to physicians. 

  19. While performing the exorcism over a woman, he ought always to have assisting him several women of good repute, who will hold on to the person when she is harassed by the evil spirit. These assistants ought if possible to be close relatives of the subject, and for the sake of decency the exorcist will avoid saying or doing anything which might prove an occasion of evil thought to himself or to the others.

  20. During the exorcism he shall preferable employ words from Holy Writ, rather than forms of his own or of someone else. He shall, moreover, command the devil to tell whether he is detained in that body by necromancy, by evil signs or amulets; and if the one possessed has taken the latter by mouth, he should be made to vomit them; if he has them concealed on his person, he should expose them; and when discovered they must be burned. Moreover, the person should be exhorted to reveal all his temptations to the exorcist.

  21. Finally, after the possessed one has been freed, let him be admonished to guard himself carefully against falling into sin, so as to afford no opportunity to the evil spirit of returning, lest the last state of that man become worse than the former.

The Rite of Exorcism

The full ritual for exorcism is some five thousand words in length. It consists of the recitation of psalms, readings from the Gospels, and lengthy prayers asking God to deliver a possessed person or place from infestation by the devil.

Before beginning to exorcise the priest is instructed to go to confession, offer the sacrifice of the Mass and implore God’s help. He is to be vested in a surplice and stole. He is to bless himself and the possessed person or persons, using holy water, pray on his knees, recite the Litany of the Saints, and only then begin the formal exorcism.

Although a bit lengthy, I think the formal act of exorcism should be quoted in full. It is both sobering and enlightening, especially in view of the widespread influence of the evil spirit in our day. The words are addressed directly to the devil:

I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every satanic power of the enemy, every scepter from hell, and all your fallen companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus + Christ. Begone and stay far from this creature of God. + For it is He who commands you, He who flung you headlong from the heights of heaven into the depths of hell. It is He who commands you, He who once stilled the sea and the wind and the storm. Hearken, therefore, and tremble in fear, Satan, you enemy of the faith, you foe of the human race, you begetter of death, you robber of life, you corrupter of justice, you root of all evil and vice; seducer of men, betrayer of the nations, instigator of envy, font of avarice, fomenter of discord, author of pain and sorrow. Why, then, do you stand and resist, knowing as you must that Christ the Lord brings your plans to nothing? Fear Him, who in Isaac was offered in sacrifice, in Joseph sold into bondage, slain as the paschal lamb, crucified as man, yet triumphed over the powers of hell. (The three signs of the cross which follow are traced on the brow of the possessed person). Begone, then, in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, + and of the Holy + Spirit. Give place to the Holy Spirit by this sign of the holy + cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.

When the Savior told us that the devil is the prince of this world, He meant this literally. Our century has been the most homicidal, the most crime ridden and, as the Holy Father tells us, the most seduced century in human history. What we need is a global deliverance by Jesus Christ, the Divine Exorcist who has overcome the world.

Copyright © 1996 Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of