Stupid Question ™
Oct. 11, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: I think my friend is possessed by demons. Who in the local area will perform an exorcism?
A: Most traditional religions, including Islam and Judaism, have rites for driving out evil spirits. But “exorcism” per se is a Christian rite most frequently practiced by (and in fact a core belief of) the Catholic Church, the Church of England and fundamentalist Protestants.
While there is a minor exorcism movement among non-fundamentalist Protestants, especially the United Methodists, such denominations will probably be no help to you. In the real-life case behind the novel and film “The Exorcist,” the family’s Lutheran minister referred them to the Catholics.
The Catholic Church is definitely the place to go, both because of its comprehensive use of exorcism and because of its caution in accepting crazy behavior as “possession.” Also, the Catholics will exorcise anybody: Catholic, non-Catholic, even the excommunicated.
Exorcism is simply a prayer to God to get rid of evil spirits. In its simplest forms, it’s used extremely frequently to bless holy water and cleanse candidates for baptism. Before the reorganization of priestly orders in the 1960s, one of the regular priestly ranks was actually called “Exorcist.”
But the fancy rite involved in exorcising violently “possessed” people is a “solemn exorcism,” which can be performed only by specially authorized and appointed priests.
You can start by consulting a Catholic parish priest. However, the Catholics acknowledge that many “possessions,” including many recounted in the Bible, are misdiagnosed physical or psychological diseases. The first thing they’ll do is send your friend to a doctor and/or a psychologist.
If the doctors find nothing wrong, the Catholics will still demand supernatural evidence: superhuman strength, or the ability to speak languages the person hasn’t studied. (I must note that there is no credible evidence of any “possessed” person ever having powers beyond those of verified mental disturbances and common pranking.) Only then will an exorcist be called in.
Also, knowing you’re “possessed” is taken as a sign that you really aren’t. Exorcists say that between 1 and 10 percent of possession cases turn out to be “real.”
The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio told me it has no official exorcist. So the bishop would have to appoint one or call one in from elsewhere.
For referrals to priests and doctors, and for smaller exorcisms (a spirit that causes only minor trouble) conducted by laypeople, you might try Catholic “Deliverance Counseling.” The Ohio Spiritual Warfare Center, near Cincinnati, is one group in this new movement. (See http://www.ohiospiritualwarfare.org/.)
For a simpler experience, you can try any local fundamentalist church, most of which ascribe to the casting out of demons by pastors and even laity. Exorcism usually involves a quick laying-on of hands and shouting at the demon.
In any case, exorcism is never guaranteed. The pope himself recently failed to exorcise a 19-year-old woman. It can also be dangerous: In 1976, two German priests were convicted of negligent homicide when a woman died under their exorcism rather than receiving medical care.