Above is a scene from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” a 2005 film loosely based on the real story of a 23-year-old German woman. (Sony Pictures via CNS)
Above is a scene from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” a 2005 film loosely based on the real story of a 23-year-old German woman. (Sony Pictures via CNS)

Halloween trick-or-treaters soon will arrive on doorsteps with devil horns and pitchforks, while streaming services offer chilling tales featuring Hollywood-embellished exorcisms.

Yet few people, Catholics included, have a sense of what an exorcism actually is. The practice remains shrouded in misinformation and mystery, even as claims of demonic possession and requests for exorcisms increase.

Skeptics see the rite as kooky hocus-pocus; others view it as a fascinating engagement with the devil. But the Catholic Church has long understood it as a tool of healing centered on Christ. At its core, an exorcism is a prayer showing the afflicted the face of God.

An uptick

Father Vincent Lampert, an exorcist for the Indianapolis Archdiocese for 16 years, is among the senior U.S. priests fulfilling the ministry. He’s traveled the globe to perform the rite.

The number of calls Father Lampert receives about demonic activity were rising pre-pandemic but they’ve nearly doubled over the past year and a half. Previously it was about six calls a day, now it’s 10-12. He attributes the surge to both increased need and perceived but misunderstood need.

A loss of faith in the U.S. population is, ironically, why more people have turned to exorcists in recent years, said Father Lampert. Some see a priest as a kind of magician, with the crucifix and rosary “as part of a Catholic bag of tricks that can make a range of problems go away.”

Auxiliary Bishop Peter Smith in Portland has studied exorcisms extensively. Agreeing with most U.S. exorcists, he said the majority of people who think they need an exorcism do not, though they may require other forms of assistance, including prayer. (In the Portland Archdiocese, as in the majority of dioceses, the identities of those involved in the ministry is kept private.)

Many exorcists believe there is, however, a real and growing need for the rite.

“It’s not because the devil is upping his game but that there are more people willing to play his game,” said Father Lampert.

The pandemic has made the situation worse. The devil is opportunistic and will take advantage of occasions to instill fear in people, Father Lampert explained. “And fear levels have been off the charts.”

Recent social unrest also may have contributed to a greater sense of need.

Last October, after months of racial justice protests that at certain points turned into riots, Archbishop Alexander Sample held an exorcism to cleanse downtown Portland of evil.

“Demonic activity feeds on negativity, anger and bitterness like that present during a riot,” Father Lampert said. “It feeds off anything that creates isolation and destroys a sense of community.” 

Fr. Vincent Lampert, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, holds a crucifix last December in St. Michael Church in Brookville, Indiana, where he is pastor. (Sean Gallagher/The Criterion via CNS)

‘A ministry of mercy’

Exorcisms were common in Judaism and have existed in the Catholic Church in some form for the past 2,000 years. Their Christian roots come from the example of Jesus, who acts as exorcist in several Gospel accounts.

Other denominations perform exorcisms, but the Catholic Church is among the few with a formal rite.

The church recognizes two kinds, or forms, of exorcisms: minor and major. When God is being asked to expel a demon, it’s called a supplicating prayer or minor exorcism. Prayers used in baptism and for deliverance fall under this category.

“Minor exorcisms are used to help a person to overcome the influence of evil and sin in their life,” writes Father Lampert in his 2020 book, “Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and His Demons.” The faithful as well as priests may recite such prayers.

Major exorcisms are for cases of true demonic possession.

“The solemn exorcism, called ‘a major exorcism,’ can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the church. 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.”

An exorcism can best be understood as “an act of mercy that unleashes God’s love against the attacks of the devil,” writes Father Lampert. “It is a ministry of compassion. It is a ministry of charity. It is a ministry of mercy.”

Comprehensive protocol

“For some folks, the devil is behind any kind of suffering or problem they have,” said Bishop Smith. “Human beings, being what we are, it’s almost always a lot more complex than that.”

Dioceses thus have a protocol to respond to inquiries made by the faithful who claim to be demonically afflicted. Only after a thorough examination that includes medical, psychological and psychiatric testing might a person be referred to an exorcist for a determination regarding demonic possession.

Bishop Smith pointed out the rosary and the sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick are formidable ways to address spiritual maladies. If an individual is under mild spiritual attack, he or she also can use prayers against the evil one.

“When you are dealing with spiritual warfare in a more serious way — when there is harassment by an evil spirit — only then do you need an exorcist,” he said. “To use a medical analogy, you shouldn’t have open heart surgery when you can address a situation with an aspirin.”

It may feel easier to attribute suffering to demonic influence rather than to other challenges, including mental illness, the bishop added. “The reality is, some of us have crosses in our lives, and we can get help through other tools God gave us — modern medicine and the understanding of psychologists and psychiatrists.”

Types of possession

Father Lampert may fight demons, but he also baptizes babies, gives first Communion and officiates at weddings as pastor of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Peter parishes in Brookville, Indiana.

An exorcist’s ministry can be spiritually, mentally and physically draining, and “parish life can help the exorcist to renew himself,” said Father Lampert, a man with a gentle demeanor, ready sense of humor and quick mind.

He estimates there are 125 fellow exorcists in the United States, a figure nearly 10 times higher than when he first began the ministry.

The Indiana-based Pope Leo III Institute provides training for priests preparing to enter the work, and there is an International Association of Exorcists, a group headquartered in Rome and recognized by the Vatican since 2014.

The identity of most exorcists remain concealed so priests can avoid unwanted attention. Father Lampert empathizes with this approach, though he’s felt called to speak openly as a way of educating the faithful and helping them grasp that the practice is far more about God’s love than demonic power.

The Catholic Church understands there to be four types of extraordinary demonic activity: mental attacks called obsessions, physical attacks called vexations, infestations of locations or objects, and demonic possessions. Possessions, in which a demon treats a body as if it were his own, are very rare. Father Lampert said they comprise about 1 in every 5,000 cases he tends to.

In the Archdiocese of Portland, demonic possession has occurred, but “there have been very few instances,” said Bishop Smith.

While serving as an apprentice with an experienced exorcist in Rome, Father Lampert believes he witnessed a possessed person levitate when a demon manifested. He said he’s also seen possessed individuals growling and snarling, foaming at the mouth, slithering across the floor or exhibiting superhuman strength when a demon manifested himself.

After years of experience, such “theatrics of the devil” do not shock Father Lampert. “The devil and God are not on the same playing field,” he said. “The devil is a creature and is not on the same level as our creator.”

‘The devil has to give way’

The average Catholic need not fear they will one day wake up possessed. “The devil can’t just jump into someone,” Father Lampert said. There needs to be an entry point for the demonic.

That entry point can appear through different avenues. A person who has participated in aspects of the occult or intentionally and repeatedly done something contrary to the faith is more vulnerable, Father Lampert said.

Bishop Smith and Father Lampert say the ordinary aspects of the faith help keep evil at bay. Go to Mass and confession, receive Communion, spend time in prayer, and strive to love your neighbor.

Few Catholics ever ought to be concerned about extraordinary demonic activity, the two priests said. Instead, people must be on alert to how the devil attacks them subtly, sneakily in their everyday lives.

The faithful should also remember that through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, he defeated death and the devil and “gives us new life through the Holy Spirit,” said Bishop Smith. “Our salvation is not automatic; we need to participate. But ultimately the devil has to give way to Christ.”

 

Learn more

— The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has a Q&A webpage dedicated to explaining exorcisms and dispelling misinformation

— “Exorcism: The Battle Against Satan and His Demons,” by Fr. Vincent Lampert. Emmaus Road Publishing, Steubenville, Ohio; 2020