They’re baaack! What’s behind the return of the exorcist

After a decades-long absence, interest in demonic possession—and the ritual to defeat it—is on the rise.

For more than a decade, Frank, a software consultant who lives near Silicon Valley, California has been haunted by depression and rage. Searching for remedies to lift his dark mood, Frank, 52, tried pills, therapy, even channeling spirits. Nothing worked.

Three years ago, his wife handed him a book about demonic possession. Written by a former priest active in charismatic Catholic circles, the book presented scriptural arguments for the existence of demons and offered advice to questions such as, “How do we know if an evil spirit is really present?” and “How do I pray for deliverance?” Desperate for relief, Frank decided, while jogging one night, to pray for deliverance.

“If I had known what was going to happen, I would have picked a more private place,” Frank says.

After reciting the recommended prayer, he doubled over, dry heaving, by the side of the road. His lungs felt like they were leaping out of his chest.


With a doctorate in astrophysics, Frank (not his real name) considers himself a man of science who relies on research and analysis to make sense of the world. Despite the occult overtones, his body’s violent reaction to the deliverance prayer struck him as an obvious case of cause and effect. He became convinced that he—like the poor souls he’d just read about—was infested with evil spirits.

After reading more books about demonic possession, Frank, a lapsed Catholic at the time, asked around for a priest who might be willing to exorcize him.

In a way Frank was fortunate. Exorcism is experiencing a renaissance in American Catholicism. There are more exorcists in the United States now than at any other time in modern history, according to experts. More than 100 bishops and priests met in Baltimore last November to recruit dozens more.

So Frank didn’t have to look far to find Father Gary Thomas, a gregarious priest in Saratoga, California, a small city on the western slope of Silicon Valley.


In addition to pastoral duties at Sacred Heart Parish, Thomas is the official exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. He has also become the public face of Catholic exorcism in America, with the book and movie versions of The Rite (Doubleday), based on his training as an exorcist in Rome.

Frank sat for an hour-long exam conducted by a psychiatrist on Thomas’ “exorcism team,” who concluded that Frank was not suffering from mental illness.

Thomas next prayed over Frank, during which Frank’s face contorted into a wide yawn. This was interpreted as a sign of his indwelling demons’ aversion to the sacred—a criterion of possession dating to 1614.

Thomas emphasizes the rarity of possession, noting that he has only exorcized five people in five years. More than 80 percent of the people who come to him need therapy, not an exorcist, he says.


What Thomas does not mention is that four of the people he has exorcized gave up midway through the process—frustrated by their lack of improvement. The fifth is Frank, who drives to Sacred Heart for exorcism once every five months and has done so for two and a half years.

Cases like Frank’s pose predicaments not only for exorcists such as Thomas, but also for other priests, laity, and mental health professionals.

Thomas encourages Frank to seek psychiatric help in addition to the exorcisms. But aside from two annual visits to a psychiatrist who prescribes his antidepressant, Frank refuses medical and psychological attention. He tried that, he says, and it didn’t help. Exorcism has.

“I have a sense of progress,” Frank says. “I feel better about life. I’m hoping it won’t take a whole lot longer to finish.”


As interest in exorcism rises, the church faces a host of tricky questions. Is the rite an outdated remedy best left to history? Or can it be effective alongside modern medical and psychological treatment? And why are bishops—who are leading a church plagued by emptying schools, vanishing vocations, and a sex abuse scandal that won’t go away—investing their limited time and resources to train exorcists?

Demonic obsession

Dormant for centuries at a time, exorcism tends to awaken when the church confronts significant crises, says Nancy Caciola, a history scholar at the University of California-San Diego.


Portable manuals detailing ever more elaborate and standardized rituals of exorcism proliferated during the papal schism of the 15th century, when two men claimed to be the rightful pope. The manuals surfaced again during the Protestant Reformation.

“In general, exorcisms are associated with these turning-point moments when the church [feels] challenged in some way and tries to centralize power and clarify the delegation of authority from God down through the hierarchy,” Caciola says.


The challenges now confronting the Catholic Church in the United States are legion: the sex abuse scandal, a secularizing society, and a restive flock that, studies show, loses one out of three adult Catholics, to name just a few.

Exorcism reasserts the relevance of the church and its inimitable power over human destiny. Who else is going to help when the devil comes for you?

Pope John Paul II, who is rumored to have performed several exorcisms, frequently warned Catholics that Satan is very real and very dangerous.

In a similar vein, Pope Benedict XVI praised a group of Italian exorcists in 2005, saying, “I encourage you to pursue your important ministry in the service of the church, sustained by the vigilant attention of your bishop and the unending prayers of the Christian community.”


In the latter half of John Paul’s papacy, the number of official exorcists in the United States ballooned from one to 19, according to sociologist Michael Cuneo. The number has grown to about 30 under Benedict. Many of the new exorcists are theologically conservative priests chosen by like-minded bishops who share the late pontiff’s belief that the church is battling cosmic forces of evil.

That exalted view undoubtedly appeals to men whose professional and spiritual identities have been sullied by the clergy sex abuse scandal. Thomas and others believe the priesthood will require years, even generations, to recover.

“The effects of what happened in 2002 are far more dramatic now,” says Thomas, who is 57 but has the vitality of a younger man. “It’s like when you have an earthquake and all the buildings fall, and then you’ve got to repair them. The aftermath is far more arduous.”

In rebuilding the priesthood’s reputation, many younger clergy are drawn to old stones—wearing long cassocks, celebrating the Mass in Latin, reciting pre-Vatican II devotionals, and performing exorcisms, a rite that places priests in the role of hero rather than scapegoat.

“It’s a selective return to the past,” says Precious Blood Father Robert Schreiter, a theologian at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “A lot of it, indeed, is intended to create a distinctive identity—a sense of the church as over and against the world.”

Apocalypse now

Interest in exorcism also trends with apocalyptic prognostications, Caciola says. As the world spins closer to its end, demonic power grows stronger, sucking in more human victims, according to some readings of scripture. Watching the nightly news during these last few years may be enough to convince some contemporary Catholics that the end is indeed nigh.

“I think we’re living in apocalyptic times, I really do,” Thomas says. “The economy, the scandals in the church, and all these other tsunamis of events—I don’t think this is just a coincidence.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois convened the conference on exorcism last November.


The bishop, who chairs the bishops’ committee on governance and canon law, does not view the renewed interest in exorcism as part of a conservative campaign. “We certainly didn’t sit down as a group and say, ‘How can we recover the fundamentals? Hey, let’s do exorcism!’ ” he says.

Rather, the reason for the interest is that Catholics are clamoring for it, and the church does not have enough exorcists to meet the demand.

While full possession is extremely rare, lesser forms of diabolical harassment, which the church calls “oppression” or “vexation,” are on the rise, according to Paprocki.

“People are falling away from organized religion, dabbling in their own spiritual paths or following no religion at all. That opens a door for the devil to come in and get involved with their lives,” he says.

For several years, Paprocki has heard grumbles from exorcists about their heavy workload. “In some ways, it’s not fair to them,” he says.

Since the release in the last two years of The Rite, Thomas says that 40 people call or e-mail him each month claiming to be possessed and seeking his help.

The goal of the Baltimore meeting was to convince each of the country’s 195 dioceses to appoint priests equipped to handle inquiries about demonic possession. “It’s not so much performing exorcisms, it’s the screening that’s so time consuming,” Paprocki says.

The bishop hopes that the attendance of 66 priests and 56 bishops at his exorcism conference is a sign that help is on the way.


Gang warfare

The Rolling Stones are wrong. The devil doesn’t hope you guess his name, and neither do his fellow fallen angels.

Close to two dozen demons have “oppressed” Frank, according to Thomas. That means Frank’s body and soul are under attack but have not fallen completely under the devil’s sway, as occurs during full possession.

“Demons don’t travel alone,” Thomas says. “They travel in packs called gangs, and you have to get their name to get rid of them.” Frank and Thomas say they have spent the last two and a half years trying to get the demons to surrender their names, and then exorcizing them one by one.

Like many features of exorcism, the idea of nomenclature as power dates to Jesus. In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus asks for demons’ names (“Legion,” comes the answer), then sends them into a herd of swine. Each of the synoptic gospels tells of exorcisms performed by Jesus, who directed his disciples to cast out demons in his name. He neglected to provide detailed instructions.

Over the course of centuries, the Catholic Church steadily filled that void, elaborating its rite of exorcism and proscribing who could perform it. At one time, anyone—even women—could exorcize demons. Now, only duly appointed priests with express permission from their bishop are allowed.

Father Jeffrey Grob, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago, says the church has issued the expanded directives to curb abuses by charlatans who used exorcism to make money or attack enemies.

During widespread witch-hunts in Europe during the late Middle Ages, demons were thought to be hiding beneath each rock (or within each bosom), argues Grob, whose 2006 doctoral dissertation detailed the rite’s history. Women felt the brunt of the suspicion, and covens of alleged witches were persecuted, tortured, and murdered by zealous exorcists.

“The best the church could do was to regulate more closely the use of exorcism and keep a closer watch over those who practiced it,” Grob writes. “Eventually only exorcistic formulas that had long been in use were allowed, and more complex requirements and conditions were placed on the exorcist himself.”


The Spirit vs. spirits

Most recently the Vatican has trained its sights on charismatic Catholics, whose emergence in the 1970s brought newfound attention to exorcism. Together with the charismatic movement, exorcism has flourished in African and Latin American countries where belief in spirits—evil and otherwise—is widespread.

In some ways charismatic Catholics’ Pentecostal-style “deliverance ministries” hew closer to first-century exorcism than the church’s modern-day rite. They use simple verbal formulas and blame a host of afflictions on diabolical forces. They believe the power to banish demons is imparted not by bishops but through the Holy Spirit.

Though influenced by Pentecostalism, charismatic Catholics tend to be more circumspect about exorcism than Pentecostals, some of whom use mass healing ceremonies to “deliver” sufferers from the demons of lust, drug addiction, and—most controversially—homosexuality.

Still, charismatic exorcists are self-appointed and often base their diagnoses on quick impressions, rather than careful diagnosis, Schreiter of Catholic Theological Union, says.

The Vatican noticed the increase of deliverance ministries, particularly in Africa and Italy, and instructed bishops to crack down.

“Bishops are asked to guard lest those who lack the required power attempt to lead assemblies in which prayers are employed to obtain liberation from demons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose head at the time was the future Pope Benedict, wrote in 1985. The Vatican repeated the warning in 2000.

The risks posed by charismatic Catholics pale in comparison to the challenges presented by medical science. Not since the witch-hunts has the legitimacy of exorcism been so under attack, according to Grob.

“From the positive viewpoint, psychologists and psychiatrists informed and helped to integrate exorcism in a modern world, but from a negative one, they called into question the credibility of exorcism as a means of restoring health,” he writes.


The devil made me do it

The Roman ritual cautions exorcists to use “extreme circumspection and prudence” and not perform the rite unless they know with “moral certainty” that a person is possessed. It also warns against mistaking mental illness for demonic influence.

“To too readily go to that explanation (of demonic possession) and, therefore, treatment for what can otherwise be explained as mental illness, carries serious risk,” says Father John Cecero, a psychology professor at Fordham University.

In cases of serious mental illness, lack of medical treatment can lead sufferers to commit suicide, to harm others, or to die the slow death of self-neglect, he says.

In deference to those concerns, some priest-exorcists, such as Thomas, employ “exorcism teams” that include psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians.

Grob breaks mental health professionals down into three categories: Those who believe in exorcism, those who think it could have a placebo effect, and those who think it’s a crock.

Dr. Richard Gallagher, a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College, falls into the first category. The only American on the governing board of the Rome-based International Association of Exorcists, Gallagher has for the last 25 years assisted exorcists throughout the United States by screening people who say they are possessed and evaluating them for mental health afflictions.

Gallagher is careful to note that he does not diagnose demonic possession. That’s the priest’s job. He just rules out medical causes for the patient’s poor condition.

“Most priests are well-educated and on the skeptical side, and that’s good,” says Gallagher. “A large percentage of people I see do turn out to have psychiatric problems.”


Among the psychiatric disorders most commonly confused with possession are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and dissociative identity disorder, formerly referred to as multiple personality disorder.

Possession itself is not in any of the standard diagnostic manuals. Nor should it be, says Gallagher. “It’s a spiritual disorder, not a psychiatric disorder,” he says.

Fight for the rite

But possession could, in a way, make it into an upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, according to Dr. Roberto Lewis-Fernandez, who is part of a team updating the manual.

Lewis-Fernandez, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, proposes including “possession trance” as a category of dissociative identity disorder in the volume. Possession trances, like dissociative identity disorder, are marked by the feeling that one’s usual self has been hijacked by internal or external forces, and afterwards, retaining little memory of the experience.

The entry would not address whether the external forces are “real or unreal” and would distinguish between stressful trance states such as demonic possession and more positive religious experiences, such as being “slain” by the Holy Spirit, Lewis-Fernandez says.

Treating possession trance disorder could include exorcisms. “As long as it’s done by a sensitive human and doesn’t do violence, it could work,” he says.

Gallagher says he has seen exorcisms work in scores of cases. But the church has only anecdotal evidence of the rite’s effectiveness. While it has tried to put responsible limits on the use of exorcism, it has never publicly studied how often it’s performed, where, and by whom.

In previous eras, even suggesting a scientific study of exorcism would get you laughed out of the room. But a growing number of psychiatrists such as Lewis-Fernandez profess a willingness to incorporate religious beliefs in medical treatment. Academics in the mental health professions might some day be tapped by the church to empirically study exorcism’s capacity to heal.


Cuneo, the sociologist, has argued that the recent interest in exorcism is part of America’s quick-fix, pop psychology, pass-the-blame, no-pain-please culture.

But Frank describes his experiences with exorcism as neither quick nor painless.

Each session, he spends an hour and a half screaming and thrashing in a church confessional. His face contorts, his throat growls, his stomach throws up, his body strains to punch a wall.

“At the end, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. My voice hurts from screaming like a stuck pig, and I’m drenched in sweat,” he says.

Despite his physical exhaustion, a peaceful sensation pervades Frank after each exorcism.

Then the feeling fades.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 6, pages 12-17).

Image: Illustration by Tom Keating

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke is a national correspondent for Religion News Service. He lives in Baltimore.

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