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Everything you wanted to know about exorcisms


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Philip Kosloski - published on 04/19/23

Exorcisms are mysterious and haunting, but in reality are rarely as sensational as Hollywood presents them.

Hollywood loves the idea of exorcisms, and there is no shortage of movies that highlight popular notions of how exorcisms are performed.

In reality, exorcisms are certainly very mysterious and at times haunting, but they aren’t always full of levitations and objects flying across the room.

Here is a collection of articles to help you learn more about real-life exorcisms.

What is an exorcist?

Generally speaking, an exorcist is a priest in the Catholic Church who is given the task of investigating cases of possible demonic influence.

This priest is appointed by the local bishop, but not all dioceses have an official exorcist on staff. According to some reports, the number of specially appointed exorcists is only around 50 priests for the entire United States.

Many of these priests are common parish priests who have their own pastoral duties, but who also spend some time responding to calls of possible demonic possession.

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There are two main types of exorcism

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism as, “the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice.”

In the Catholic Church this is expressed in two primary forms, called “minor” exorcisms and “major” exorcisms.

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This is what exorcisms are really like

Fr. Mike Driscoll, in his book Demons, Deliverance and Discernmentgives a basic outline of the rite, explaining the various components to it.


First of all, before any exorcism takes place, a thorough investigation takes place. The priest will typically meet with the possessed individual on multiple occasions. Often this can take up to a year (or more). During this time a psychological exam will take place where a psychologist will assist the priest in making a determination of whether the person needs medical or divine assistance.

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Can anyone perform exorcisms?

The official Rite of Exorcism is very clear about who can perform exorcisms: “A priest—one who is expressly and particularly authorized by the Ordinary [local bishop].”

This means that no lay person and no priest not so authorized can perform this reserved Rite.

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Interview with an American exorcist

A priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and a research associate professor at the Catholic University of America, Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti is a licensed psychologist and has served as an exorcist of the Archdiocese of Washington for 13 years. He has participated in hundreds of exorcisms.

With Halloween just around the corner, Msgr. Rossetti spoke with Aleteia about spiritual warfare and his work as an exorcist.

Scripture says, “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Can you lay out some basic terms and clarify a little about what Catholics believe? What’s spiritual warfare? What’s an exorcism?

The first and most important thing is that Jesus already won the battle. With his death and resurrection, he smashed Satan’s kingdom. But nonetheless there is a real battle for souls right now. Who goes to heaven to live with the Lord, which is what God wants, and who remains separated from God.

An exorcism is this battle in high relief. For one reason or another Satan claims a human being. For one reason or another, something happens which he thinks gives him a right to say: “this person belongs to me.” Sometimes it’s because of a behavior, like indulging in the occult or because of serious sin. What we do in an exorcism is insist that a soul belongs to Christ. An exorcism is taking back a soul for Christ. In fact, the new Rite of Exorcism includes a renewal of baptismal promises, the moment when someone was first claimed for Christ.

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The real-life exorcism that inspired ‘The Exorcist’

In 1949, a young 13-year-old boy in Maryland was hearing and seeing strange things in his house after playing with a Ouija board. His family didn’t know what to do, so they contacted their Lutheran pastor.

According to an historical account of the events, the pastor said, “Go to a Catholic priest; the Catholics know about this kind of thing.”

They visited a local priest who later asked permission to perform an exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital. It didn’t end well, with the boy breaking off a spring from the mattress and slashing the priest.

Supernatural events persisted and so his parents felt they needed to do something more. The boy’s mother was from St. Louis and thought it would be good to find a priest there who could help.

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