Cashing in on the Devil?
The devil plays a prominent role as the Anti-Christ in the Scriptures. He appears under the guise of a serpent in the Garden, persuading Eve to consume the forbidden fruit. He torments the just man Job to test Job’s fidelity; He returns to tempt Jesus in the desert; Jesus and his disciples cast out demons from the possessed. The Cross is not only a horrible specter of diabolical power, but it is also a definitive Sign of the defeat of evil. In our day, there is widespread disbelief in the devil as a person.
What emphasis should we place on his existence?
There are many references to the devil in the Sacraments, above all Baptism. The Baptismal ritual has us renounce Satan and all his works. Every priest is an exorcist when he blesses water and articles. Every Catholic is an exorcist when making the Sign of the Cross and reciting prayers such as the Saint Michael prayer. Traditional Catholic blessings frequently invoke God’s power to vanquish the ancient foe. The saints often report their struggles with the Evil One. And diabolical possessions may be increasing with the decline of religious practice.
In 1973 during the era of the Vietnam War and America’s cultural turmoil, Hollywood released The Exorcist, based on a book by William Peter Blatty. Although the special effects at times were excessive, the blockbuster film captured the terror of diabolical possession, and many Catholics promoted the movie as a means to counter the emergence of rampant modern secularism. Even the Georgetown Jesuits were delighted with the free advertising provided by the film.
But if the secularization of the Jesuit order is any indication, the movie failed. In a few years, Georgetown University—presumably in the name of diversity and inclusion—removed the crucifixes from classrooms. Georgetown’s affiliate parish, Holy Trinity, now hosts the most virulently pro-abortion President in American history. If The Exorcist scared the hell out of us, it failed to intimidate the Georgetown Jesuits. The cultural and social confusion of our time has renewed interest in the works and pomps of the devil. But the uptick in the fixation with the diabolical is unsettling because we seem more susceptible to spiritual manipulation.
Internet searches reveal priests who gain fame as warriors against the devil only to fall victim to Satan’s counterattacks. One such priest conducted an exorcism in private and without the presence of assistants that prudence demands. Violating Church law—and without the Church’s disciplinary shield—he eventually violated the Sixth Commandment. The ensuing scandal serves as a warning to every freelance priest who self-identifies as a demon specialist.
But the emergence of celebrity exorcists commissioned by the Church is also troubling. There are no checks beyond the procedural, the ritual, and (the always vulnerable) virtue of the priests. There is also a danger that some people may attempt to deflect responsibility for behavior or draw attention to themselves by claiming diabolical interference. Privacy—accompanied by the discipline to keep things secret—strips away all narcissistic impulses by all involved. Exorcism in private is work, not theatre.
Up until relatively recently, most priests did not even know the identity of the diocesan exorcist, if there was one. And if any priest claimed the title beyond circles where there was a need-to-know, clerical exaggeration (to put it politely) was not ruled out. According to the traditional Roman Ritual, the priest authorized by a bishop to perform an exorcism must be “properly distinguished for his piety, prudence and integrity of life. He should fulfil this devout undertaking in all constancy and humility, being utterly immune to any striving for human aggrandizement, and relying, not on his own, by on the divine power” (p. 169, emphasis added). It doesn’t seem unjust to question the motives of an exorcist who seeks the public limelight or is quick to sell books recounting his experiences.
The basis of Blatty’s book was an exorcism that took place in Saint Louis in 1949. A 14-year-old boy was the alleged victim of demonic possession, and an assisting priest recorded the events. After discovering the long-lost diary, author Thomas Allen wrote a history of the exorcism in 1993 (Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism). The exorcist, himself, Father William S. Bowdern, SJ, never broke his silence. When Allen wrote him for details, Father Bowdern—an old-school Jesuit—refused to cash in as a celebrity exorcist: “I can’t tell you anything about it. I’m pledged to secrecy.” Bravo!
But an attending Jesuit (a novice at the time), Walter Halloran, SJ, spoke freely to the author, faithfully describing events but refusing to give his opinion. In his concluding remarks, he placed the entire episode into a proper theological and spiritual perspective. After the successful exorcism, another assisting Jesuit became a chaplain in the Korean War. The priest said he saw more evil in the war than he saw during the exorcism. We view diabolical special effects with horrified fascination. But mortal sin should terrify us more than any demon or any suffering in this life.
Jesus dismisses the devil in the desert with the briefest of phrases that we are free to borrow in His name: “Begone, Satan!” (Mt. 4:10) But He warns us at length against sins that ruin souls: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mk. 9:42-48)
The devil can only succeed with our cooperation. So with prayer and the Sacraments—especially frequent Confession—kick him to the curb and ignore him. But let’s keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and the Eucharist, seeking virtuous lives in Him.
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Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 -
Oct. 03, 2021 6:40 PM ET USA
So Fr. Pokorsky is, it seems, no fan of Fr. Gabriele Amorth. He is no greater source of authority than Fr. Amorth. He is not more persuasive than Fr. Amorth. He does not encourage the sacraments more or sin less. He is also a writer, but a writer less read; and that is the basis of his sense of superiority? What good is supposed to come of this?
Posted by: grateful1 -
Oct. 01, 2021 8:13 PM ET USA
Thanks so much for this, Fr. Pokorsky. Though I'm fairly knowledgeable about the Faith, my understanding of exorcism has been sketchy at best. Thanks to your piece, my footing is a little firmer.
Posted by: toddvoss1511 -
Oct. 01, 2021 6:13 PM ET USA
Excellent essay. I too am very concerned and wary of celebrity exorcists as social media has a temptation to assign them a near magisterial authority for their opinions the interpretation and application of many church teachings and disciplines