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Exorcisms: Hollywood vs. Reality

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 03/07/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Certain types of exorcisms are performed regularly - even at baptism

While critics panned the recently released The Last Exorcism: Part II, films portraying exorcisms have continued to find fans among lovers of horror films. Due to the popularity of films such as The Exorcist, most people are at least familiar with the term “exorcism” and recognize that it has something to do with the casting out of demons. Considered a sacramental by the Church, according to the Catechism, “Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church” (Catechism, 1673). There are numerous misconceptions about the Rite of Exorcism both within the Catholic Church and in our wider culture. By looking at what exorcisms are not, we can perhaps come to a clearer understanding of how exorcisms bring Christ's healing to those afflicted by evil.
When you hear the word “exorcism” you most likely think of the casting out of demons following the model of Christ in the Gospels. This solemn exorcism, known as “a major exorcism,” is performed by a priest with the local ordinary’s permission.
What many Catholics don’t realize, however, is that simple exorcisms are performed at every Baptism. In other words, if you were baptized in the Church, you have had prayers of exorcism said to protect you from the power of the Devil. One form of the Prayer of Exorcism said at baptisms reads:

Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her). We ask this through Christ our Lord” (1970 Missal).
The Prayer of Exorcism points to another truth about our earthly journey, which is that we all need protection from evil influences that are present in the world.
In the modern world, many discount the supernatural and believe that the devil is simply a concept or a superstition invented out of ignorance. Sadly, even many Christians do not fully acknowledge the presence of the Devil and other fallen angels, preferring to believe that Hell is little more than an empty threat to encourage good behavior. 
Yet, even many of the Hollywood exorcism films are (loosely) based on reality. The Rite (2011), for example, embellishes on the story of Fr. Gary Thomas, who is trained as an exorcist for the Diocese of San José. Fr. Thomas testifies to the reality of demonic possession, stating that he has performed 40 exorcisms over the years (Source). 
Fr. Thomas is just one of many priests serving dioceses around the world. Dioceses are encouraged to have at least one priest trained as an exorcist, though it is not clear if every diocese actually has one designated. Due to the nature of their work, many exorcists are known only to the local bishop and few others. While it would be imprudent to dwell on the details of demonic possession since dwelling on such things can lead to opening oneself to evil influences, the faithful can become more aware of the reality of exorcisms through exorcist accounts such as An Exorcist tells his Story, written by the former Chief Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome.
Those who believe demonic possession never occurs may claim that exorcism is used on people suffering from mental illness. And indeed, the Church urges exorcists to use discernment in performing exorcisms only on those who show definitive signs of being possessed.  “Illness, especially psychological illness,” says the Catechism, “is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” (Catechism, 1673).
Jesus Christ himself exorcised demons. In the Gospel of Mark, he says to a possessed man: “Unclean spirit, come out of that man,” after which he proceeds to ask, “What is your name?” The demon responds “Legion is my name.”  Christ expelled the demons from the man and the unclean spirits left him and entered a swine herd that then drowned (Mark 5). Demonic possession is entirely different from mental illness; those possessed rely on the power of Christ to rid them of demons, whereas those who are mentally ill require treatment by medical and psychological professionals.
The idea behind alleged magic is that when one says certain words or performs certain actions, the power to do something supernatural is accessed. There is not, however, some power floating out in the universe to be drawn upon by magicians. Rather, supernatural power is either that of God or it is of the Devil. This is an important distinction in a world where people all too readily dabble in New Age practices such as Ouija boards, crystals and tarot cards. If some supernatural occurrence were to come from these practices, it could very well be demonic. In fact, many exorcists report that those who are possessed had often opened themselves to evil influences through involvement in the occult.
Priests perform exorcisms because they have the spiritual authority to exorcise demons with the power of Christ. This power was granted when Christ “summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out” (Matthew 10:1).
When it comes to anything involving knowledge of the Devil and evil, the faithful need to strike a prudent balance. On the one hand, we should avoid becoming too familiar with subjects such as demonic possession; dwelling on evil is a temptation that should be resisted. On the other hand, we must have an active awareness that the Devil is real and that he would like nothing more than to cause souls to falter and stumble into darkness. 
In the First Letter of St. Peter we are told, “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for (someone) to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Exorcists repeatedly say that the best way to avoid affliction by the devil is to pursue the Christian life and particularly by receiving the Sacrament of Penance. We can also pray, as one exorcist I know does during the Prayers of the Faithful in every Mass, for “the deeper conversion of ourselves.” If we adhere to Christ, the Devil will not have any authority over us. 
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