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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.
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.
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 Christs 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 Saviors 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 Christs 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 Saviors 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 Churchs 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.
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 Gods 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
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