Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Exorcism Rite Reformed

by Crista Kramer von Reisswitz


An article about the new Rite of Exorcism. Included is an interview with Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez on the origin and meaning of the ritual of exorcism, a definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Ten Golden Rules that are a key to the revised rite, and highlight of Fr. Davide Falcioni, the Vatican's official exorcist and of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia, a disobedient exorcist.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican



Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, March 1999

"In a new Latin text of the exorcism ritual, the Church has reaffirmed that the devil exists and is at work in the world. But driving him away may require a modern approach.

"Get Thee Back, Satan!" The devil takes actual demonic "possession" of few souls—and the Vatican’s revised "Rite of Exorcism" stresses caution in distinguishing which these are before performing an exorcism."

Go back. Satan!" These are the key words in the reformed Catholic ritual for driving out demons, made public January 26 in Rome. In De Exorcismus et Supplicationibus Quibusdam ("Concerning Exorcisms and Certain Supplications") — the Latin version is the only version currently available — priests who have been appointed as exorcists by their bishops are urged to be circumspect and prudent in performing their duties. Rule number one, therefore, is discretion.

At a Vatican press conference January 26 to present the reformed ritual, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, stressed that very few people are actually possessed by demons (Church officials say only one in every 5.000 reported cases is an actual demonic possession).

Thus, Medina said, exorcists must distinguish between the truly possessed and those who are suffering from hysteria or mental illness.

The revised rite of exorcism, which replaces Pope Leo XIII's version of 1614, has been 10 years in the making. The 90-page Latin document will now be given to national bishops' conferences for translation into local languages.

Because the document encourages pastors to use the insights of psychology to discern alleged cases of possession, the day after the Vatican issued its new ritual, international dailies flashed headlines such as "With Freud Against the Devil." However, the appeal to Church exorcists to consult with doctors and psychotherapists is not really new. Several Italian papers recalled Pope Pius XII's 1952 handwritten amendment to the exorcism ritual recommending just such a close collaboration. In fact, the chief novelty in the new ritual is a traditional one: the addition of an appeal to the Virgin Mary.

The Vatican document stresses exorcisms must be performed with the permission — and the authority — of the local bishop. The text also stresses that Catholic priests appointed as exorcists must be exceptionally well educated, compassionate and pious.

Satan’s Signs

At his January 26 presentation, Medina explained the origin and meaning of the ritual of exorcism.

What is an exorcism?

Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez: To understand what exorcism is, we must start with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ came to announce and inaugurate God's reign over the world and human beings. He cast out devils so that man could freely respond to God, who wants to give him his Holy Spirit and to direct his steps towards peace and salvation.

The Church is called to follow Jesus Christ and has received from him the power to continue his mission. Therefore Christ's action of freeing man from evil is exercised through the Church and her ordained ministers, appointed by the bishop to carry out the sacred rites intended to deliver men and women from possession by the devil. Exorcism is thus an ancient form of prayer, which the Church uses against the power of the devil.

How do evil spirits operate? Can they actually "possess"' a person?

Medina Estevez: Sacred Scripture teaches us that evil spirits operate in different ways: a particular form is diabolical "obsession." also called diabolical "possession." But diabolical obsession is not the most frequent way the spirit of darkness exerts his influence. Obsession has sensational features, in which the devil in a certain way takes over the physical powers of the possessed person. However, the devil cannot control the subject's free will and thus cannot cause him to sin. Still, the physical violence the devil exerts over the obsessed person is an inducement to sin and this is what he seeks.

How can one discern a diabolical possession requiring exorcism?

Medina Estevez: The ritual of exorcism indicates signs, which allow us to reach the prudent conviction that we are dealing with diabolical possession and can perform the solemn rite of exorcism. These signs include: speaking many words in unknown languages or understanding them; revealing distant or hidden things; displaying strength beyond one's condition, together with a vehement aversion to God, Our Lady, the saints, the cross and sacred images.

Who may perform an exorcism?

Medina Estevez: We should stress that the diocesan bishop's authorization is required to perform an exorcism. This authorization can be granted for a specific case, or in a general, permanent way to the priest who exercises the ministry of exorcist in the diocese.

Why is the exorcism ritual being revised now?

Medina Estevez: The Roman Ritual contained the instructions and liturgical text for exorcisms in a special chapter, the final chapter, and this chapter was not revised after the Second Vatican Council. The revision has taken 10 years, resulting in the current text approved by the Supreme Pontiff. One more task still remains: the translation of this Ritual into the languages spoken in the various regions. These translations must be precise and faithful to the Latin original, and must be submitted, in accordance with canon law, for the recognitio of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

What is the content of the reformed exorcism ritual?

Medina Estevez: The Ritual we are presenting today contains, first of all, the rite of exorcism properly so-called, to be performed on a possessed person.

This is followed by the prayers to be publicly recited by a priest, with the bishop's permission, when it has been carefully determined that there is a satanic influence over places, objects or persons, but which has not reached the point of a true and proper possession. Also, there is a collection of prayers to be recited privately by the faithful whenever they have reason to suspect they are undergoing diabolical influence.

There is much skepticism about exorcism because many doubt the existence of the devil and of demons...

Medina Estevez: Exorcism is based on the faith of the Church, which holds that Satan and the other evil spirits exist and that their activity consists in diverting human beings from the way of salvation. Catholic doctrine teaches us that the demons are angels who have fallen because of sin, that they are spiritual beings of great intelligence and power, but I would like to stress that the evil influence of the devil and his followers is usually exercised through deceit and confusion. Just as Jesus is the Truth (cf. Jn 8:44), so the devil is the liar par excellence. He deceives human beings by making them believe that happiness is found in money, power or carnal desire. He deceives them into thinking that they do not need God, that grace and salvation are unnecessary. He even deceives them by diminishing the sense of sin or even suppressing it altogether, replacing God's law as the criterion of morality with the habits or conventions of the majority.

If the devil has such intelligence and power, how can human beings hope to stand against his wiles?

Medina Estevez: The Church is certain of Christ's final victory and does not let Herself be swayed by fear or pessimism. Nevertheless, she is aware of the action of the Evil One, who seeks to discourage us and to sow confusion. "Be of good cheer," the Lord says, "I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). Exorcism, an important but not the only expression of the struggle against the devil, should be seen in this context. •

What Is An Exorcism?

"When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms (Mk l:25f.) and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcising (Mk 3:15: 6:7, 13: 16:17). In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called 'a major exorcism,' can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the Bishop. 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. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter: treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1172)."

Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1673)

Ten Golden Rules: A Key To The Revised Rite Of Exorcism

  1. First, the exorcist must be sure he is dealing with a possessed person, not someone with psychological problems.
  2. To do this, he must distinguish possession from superstition. Sometimes people believe they have been affected by the "evil eye" or some other form of black magic. They should not be denied spiritual aid, but no exorcism should be carried out in such cases.
  3. The following are signs of possession: a sudden capacity to speak unknown languages; abnormal physical strength; the disclosure of hidden occurrences or events; and a vehement aversion to God, the Virgin Mary, the saints, sacramental rites and religious images, especially the cross.
  4. In difficult cases, while always respecting the secrecy of the confessional, the exorcist may consult with spiritual guides or Church-recommended physicians and psychiatrists before deciding to perform an exorcism.
  5. In the case of non-Catholics or other unusual situations, the exorcist-priest can leave the final decision to his diocesan bishop, who may also consult outside experts.
  6. The exorcism should, if possible, be carried out with the consent of the possessed person, and with awareness of that person's individual physical and mental condition.
  7. The exorcism must always be performed as an expression of Catholic faith, and should never give the impression that it is a superstitious or magical event.
  8. At the same time, an exorcism should never turn into a "show" for the faithful. For that reason, media representatives and journalists must not be allowed to attend. The success or failure of an exorcism is not to be announced or published.
  9. Relatives and friends may assist at an exorcism, if the exorcist deems it helpful, since they are able to help with their prayers. The possessed person should pray to God, particularly before the ritual, and strengthen his soul by receiving the sacraments of Baptism, Confession and Communion."
  10. If at all possible, the exorcism should take place in a church, or if not, in a closed-in place, with images of Christ Crucified and of the Mother of God. The exorcist makes the sign of the Cross over the victim's head, and immediately afterwards speaks the phrase commanding the devil, in Christ's name, to depart from the body of the possessed.

An Official Vatican Exorcist…

The priest chosen by the Holy See to drive out demons says the worst demons are often our own personalities.

The nuns on the Vatican telephone exchange must often calm down agitated callers who ask for "Pater Davide" (Father David). "No, we can't connect you. Pater Davide doesn't take any telephone calls. If you need to see him, please come and wait for him. And very early in the morning is best."

Where is the Vatican's official exorcist to be found? The Swiss Guards who patrol the Vatican entrance politely point to the tiny Santa Anna Church, just inside the main Sant 'Anna Gate, as the headquarters for the "priest who casts out devils."

Inside and outside the Vatican walls, and especially in the Borgo Pio neighborhood nearby, everyone recognizes the small, elderly priest with wise and sparkling eyes. In fact, the 85-year old Augustinian, Father Davide Falcioni, has been Rector of Santa Anna for more than 30 years and before that Vice-Rector of the church for 13 years. He has been an official exorcist for only six years.

By eight o'clock every morning, at least 30 persons are already waiting, crowded into Pater Davide's small ante-chamber anxiously anticipating his curative powers. Some are saying the Rosary.

A woman named Pina has come from Naples; her husband has a tumor and she hopes that Pater Davide can "pray it away." Mirella has brought a basket of food. She wants to present a "freshly-slaughtered ram" from her hometown in the Abruzzi Mountains to Pater Davide, who comes from the same area (Rendinara, near Aquila). "The Pater put my husband back on the right track," explains Mirella. "He was always cheating on me, but now things are better."

Pater Davide's caretaker, Marta, has a hard time keeping back some of the more desperate "visitors," insisting on immediate access to the priest-exorcist. Her cellular phone rings incessantly. About 40 people come to Pater Davide every day for his help and advice. Many show him photos of relatives with grave illnesses, and ask him to say healing prayers. Pater Davide's followers trust him completely and say they would "walk through fire" for him.

Here within the Vatican walls, no one will hear screams or see the "possessed" rolling on the ground. Pater Davide makes house calls for realty serious cases.

What qualities are necessary for an official exorcist? Most of all, patience, says Pater Davide. Sometimes he merely gives a blessing and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the allegedly possessed, who then calm down and leave peacefully for home. Most people are not truly possessed by demons, the priest explains, but rather merely "tempted by the devil."

Many women who seek Pater Davide's assistance are suffering from hysteria. Some run from one exorcist to another, or simply want to know their future. These days in Italy there is a big business in fortune telling and spiritist seances, and that, according to Pater Davide, is a serious danger. The best cure for minor psychological disturbances is a good confession, he adds. For that reason, the impressive cross on Pater Davide's desk, topped by a silver figure of Christ, is only seldom raised for driving out devils.

Pater Davide believes that others should not be held responsible for our own problems. The "evil eye" and malevolent envy usually exist only in the imagination of those who seek exorcisms. The Vatican exorcist has had excellent results with his motto: "Seek fault in yourself." He also advises his "patients" to pray to their guardian angels and to take their religious duties, particularly Sunday Mass, very seriously.

Success speaks for itself. According to Marta, Pater Davide boasts a very high percentage of cures. Lately Pater Davide has needed some of his renowned spiritual strength for himself. He is recovering from a long and serious illness and since January has considerably limited the number of devotees he can receive in his little office beside the Sant' Anna church. •

…And An Unofficial One

Despite a ban by the Church hierarchy, this charismatic archbishop-exorcist draws thousands to his faith-healings.

He is a thorn in the side for the Rome Vicariate: the world-famous African faith-healer, Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. Milingo frequently makes headlines for his "forbidden" Masses and faith-healings. Most recently, in early February 1999, he celebrated a controversial Mass attended by thousands of followers in Rome's Franciscan church of S. Pietro in Montorio.

What explains the charisma of this 67-year old former Archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia? The answer is simple: his healings. Maria Curti, 55, of Rome, told Inside the Vatican: "For years I could not move my left arm. Yet when Milingo gave his blessing, I felt a hot burning, and my arm was no longer stiff." Anna Zucca, 56, a physiotherapist from Sardinia, showed us her hands. They looked healthy. "Just a few weeks ago I had a terrible skin rash which would not go away," she said. "Thanks to Milingo, I can work again."

Milingo offers faith and hope to the poor who cannot afford expensive medicines, operations abroad, and consultations with expert doctors.

Perhaps that is why Pope John Paul II is fond of Milingo, often defending him in private, in spite of the vehement criticisms leveled against him by the Church hierarchy.

Milingo does love big audiences. He enjoys appearing on television, where he frequently sings and dances. He has recorded several money-making CD's of religious songs and has made successful videos of his faith-healing Masses. To the horror of the Roman Curia, he was even hired by a shipping company one summer as a "facilitator-entertainer" for Mediterranean cruises. The Rome diocese has warned Milingo not to make his exorcisms into "shows." Does he take the warning seriously?

"I am not a magician," says the African Archbishop. "And I don't do anything out of the ordinary. I believe that anyone can be made well. It is belief in God and a true desire for forgiveness which heals us."

Milingo only laughs at African-type practices using cow dung, cockroaches and chicken feathers. He holds that illnesses are caused by evil and diabolical spirits, and that these can be conquered by prayer and the words of the Gospel.

One of Milingo's favorite prayers goes: "Forgive me, heal me. I am naked and empty before Thee. I wish to begin a new life. Destroy the glance of evil. Free me from all sickness: depression, anxiety, obsession, asthma, cancer, tumors."

During Milingo's Masses, many faithful enter ecstatic trances. They sob, touch their diseased parts, hold up photos of afflicted relatives, and beseech the archbishop's healing power. When Mass ends, crowds ask Milingo to bless their oil and water containers; sometimes Milingo and his co-celebrants bless the faithful with holy oil or water.

Some spectacular exorcisms have been reported during Milingo's services. Recently, a young girl, screeching wildly and held back by her parents from beating herself, calmed down completely after Milingo's prayed over her.

Archbishop Milingo lives in a Vatican-owned building on the Via Porta Angelica, directly across from the Vatican's main entrance, Porta Sant' Anna. His door is always besieged by both rich and poor, all suffering from various physical and mental illnesses.

Milingo, however, has now been appointed "Special Representative" to the Vatican's Congregation for the Pastoral Care of Immigrants, and must fulfill his Curial tasks before attending to the many afflicted who beseech his help.

Milingo has no intention of repatriating to Africa, although he constantly receives letters imploring his return. "I am needed here more than in Africa," he insists. According to the Italian press, the Rome Vicariate, which in July 1966 forbade Milingo to celebrate public liturgies in Roman parishes, is now searching for a compromise with the charismatic Archbishop. It seems that the Vicariate is in touch with the Vatican Secretariat of State to locate an appropriate locale for Milingo to hold his liturgies and faith-healings.

When Inside the Vatican asked Milingo his views on the Vatican's revised exorcism ritual, he responded with a "No Comment." In fact, he has a guilty conscience. He has never paid much attention to the regulation that exorcisms must be carried out with the permission of the local bishop. •

© Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.

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