Jesus restores a possesed man in a collage engraving in “The Holy Bible,” published in 1937 by St. Vojtech Publishing, Trnava, Slovakia. Miriama Taneckova / Alamy Stock Photo

Realities of Exorcism and the Devil

Answers for clergy about the paranormal craze and the trendy topic of demonology

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At least three factors may contribute to an increase in the number of requests priests get for concerning demonic problems this year. First is that the public is increasingly aware that the Church has started to respond to such requests. This is seen in more interviews given by exorcists and the various statements by Pope Francis affirming the reality of exorcism and the devil.

The second is the potential rise in stress from world events such as the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (according to the World Health Organization) and the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, when stress increases, people are more likely to turn to spiritual solutions, as well as spiritual explanations.

The third factor is that with increased stress mental illness becomes more pronounced in many cases. It is likely that more of the mentally ill will have their symptoms flaring up, which can be misunderstood as demonic.

Awareness

A fairly thorough conversation about the issue is the first step. Here are some important things to ask:

What are the exact concrete events that the person is concerned about?

• Who has experienced these events in addition to the complainant?

• When exactly did these events start, and what changed right before they started?

• Do these events only occur when going to sleep, or waking up?

• Have similar events happened before? If so, what was done to address them? Did that help?

• What is their medical and mental health background (if they are comfortable telling you)?

• What exactly are they asking for? A house blessing? A solemn exorcism?

Misinterpretations

The majority of requests — maybe 80% — will be misunderstandings or misinterpretations of symptoms, so here are some practical tips for some of these types of scenarios.

Some people read online, self-diagnose themselves as possessed and then demand an exorcism. There is a lot of bad information online and people sometimes assume it is correct. Usually, these cases should be referred to the person who does intakes in your diocese for requests for possession. These cases most often end up being a person jumping to the conclusion that what is actually mental illness is demonic and therefore not trying mental health treatment first.

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Pastoral Manual

There is a pastoral manual available for free from Adam Blai, writer of this article. The manual explains more about this ministry and puts things in greater context. Contact Adam Blai at ablai@diopitt.org.

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Many people might be having a sleep disorder. They wake and are half-dreaming, which they interpret as a spirit. Usually, some life stress increases before the episode(s), or they have a long history of this kind of problem (hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations). If there are no other signs you might bless the home if that hasn’t been done. They should also talk with their medical doctor or mental health professional as there are treatments that sometimes help.

Some people in advanced age develop odd experiences with dementia. Women sometimes have the additional factor of novel body sensations associated with hormone changes later in life. Often the family is involved and trying to be supportive, but the person is convinced it is spiritual. Offering a blessing for healing and general prayer is fine, but too readily endorsing the demonic hypothesis can actually cause harm. When the person locks into this idea, they may become even more resistant to accepting the medical treatment and care they need.

Some people might be having their first bout of psychotic experiences as part of a mental illness. This is most common with the first psychotic break in schizophrenics. It is common that schizophrenics initially interpret their hallucinations as demons, especially if they have a spiritual worldview. They are simply trying to make sense of their new reality. The danger is that they can refuse medication because they have locked onto this demonic hypothesis. Encouraging this hypothesis before ruling out the much more likely psychiatric one can cause great harm. These can be difficult cases as the delusional thought disorder component is usually involved.

Demonic Cases

There are three general types of genuine demonic cases: infestation; oppression; possession.

Demonic infestation is when the demons have gained the right to do extraordinary things in a place. Demonic oppression is when the demons have gained the right to do extraordinary things to a person (beyond temptation). Demonic possession is when the demons have gained the rights to take over the body of the person.

The following are some of the common types of genuine demonic cases and the usual resolutions.

The long-term lingering house problem

Many families have been living with minor manifestations in their homes for years. The home often was never blessed, and they never told any priests over the years. As the families learn the Church is more responsive, they ask for help. These cases often resolve with one or two thorough house blessings and an Epiphany blessing of the threshold. Ongoing conversion of the family members is the most important component of these cases.

They moved into a troubled home

Sometimes people buy a home or rent an apartment with leftover issues from a previous owner or tenant. Usually, things start slowly with little manifestations a few days or weeks after moving in. Things progress to larger manifestations over months. The people get to the point where they have trouble staying in the house. If they are Catholic, they hopefully ask their priest for help first. Sometimes they try various solutions from the internet or local groups (paranormal, “energy workers,” etc.). The resolution is usually a thorough house blessing, an Epiphany blessing of the threshold, removing any black-magic-related objects and the ongoing spiritual conversion of the people living there. Two rounds of house blessings are needed fairly often.

They brought a cursed object into the home

Sometimes people buy or receive cursed objects. This just means the demonic has the right to do extraordinary things around that object. Sometimes these objects have obvious face validity (an occult painting, etc.), sometimes they are completely mundane. If the people brought something new into the home right before things started, that may be it. They often just get rid of it, but they can remove it from the property to see if things stop. Resolution is either simply removing it or doing a minor exorcism of the object and then blessing it. If it is outwardly evil, it is best to do the minor exorcism and then destroy it (if the people wish).

A family member got into black magic in the home

Sometimes people have a family member engaging in black magic in the home (most commonly divination or casting spells). If the problem is caused by their activities, it will generally continue as long as they live there and continue the black-magic activities. Resolution is spiritual counseling and encouragement to stop their activities. The responsibility for living arrangement decisions should be left to the family.

The person has a history of using black magic

Many people dabble in black magic (New Age, reiki, “energy work,” witchcraft, Satanism or other black-magic systems). They usually do this for some years and then things turn on them. They usually have been away from the Church but are in a desperate and scared state. The resolution is true repentance of these First Commandment violations, preferably through confession. This will likely be a process over time. Some form of deliverance prayer, in addition to sacramental graces, may be necessary. In some cases, it will turn out that the person seems to be possessed. Any possession cases must be referred to the diocese so they can be connected with the people that evaluate such cases.

It is important to not be frightened by this work. Many cases can be resolved at the parish level with a thorough house blessing and catechesis. If your diocese has a person who handles intakes you might consult with them on your case for advice. Sending every potential case to the diocesan exorcist is not a workable solution. The exorcist usually has more than enough work in handling potential possession cases; they cannot attend to every lesser case. 

ADAM BLAI is the peritus in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists. He trains priests in exorcism on a national level and has been working on demonic cases of all kinds for many years.

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Fathers of the Church

Several of the Fathers of the Church, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian and Athanasius provide us with insights into the exorcistic practices of their day through their extant writings. Through them, we gain a glimpse into the unfolding developments in the structure and form of exorcism as a rite gradually took shape. In addition to the use of Jesus’ name, other elements contributed to the shape of an early ritual such as the Sign of the Cross, exsufflation (breathing on the person’s face), simple adjurations containing Scripture, prayer and fasting.

— USCCB website, “Exorcism”

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