Deliver us from evilIN November last year, one of the world's leading exorcists quietly slipped into Sydney at the invitation of the Catholic Church.
It was a long journey for Father Jeremy Davies, exorcist for London’s Westminster Archdiocese, but there was important business afoot for the grey-haired 74-year-old. The destination for Davies, co-founder of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome, was Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney, where the tomb of Australia’s only saint lies. Waiting for him were 27 other priests, including Bishop Julian Porteous, the Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, second only to Cardinal George Pell in the Sydney Archdiocese.
For the next two days Father Davies led a discreet forum on the ancient rite of exorcism: the expulsion of demons and evil spirits from those who fear they are possessed. “It was done quietly,” Bishop Porteous says. “Some of those who attended were not officially exorcists, but I brought together those who had some involvement in this area. Priests who work in this area have little support and so I wanted them to reflect and talk about it.”
The underlying reason for Father Davies’ visit is one that is usually only talked about in whispers within the church. For reasons no one can be quite sure about, a growing number of people are approaching the church to seek help in expelling what they believe are demonic spirits. “Many of these people who approach the church for exorcism have got involved with various new-age or occult practices,” says Bishop Porteous. “What starts off seeming innocuous and not creating any difficulties at some stage turns dark. They start to experience quite frightening personal phenomena and it is at this stage that they turn for help.”
Bishop Porteous sees a link between the growing demand for exorcisms and the spiritual adventurism of young Australians. He says the growth of non-Christian alternative relaxation techniques such as yoga and reiki, as well as forms of divination such as tarot cards, fortune-telling and seances, pose temptations that could invite demonic trouble. He also points his finger at popular culture, saying the Harry Potter books and films, and the vampire-themed Twilight series, have revived curiosity with the supernatural. “While Twilight and Harry Potter are not in themselves demonic, they can lead to a fascination in this world and young people can be drawn and become more attracted to these things.”
Critics scoff at such claims and say the church is simply trying to discredit rival forms of spirituality. But Bishop Porteous believes the challenge is real and says the church needs to respond by training more exorcists. “I would like to normalise, rather than sensationalise, the ministry of exorcism,” says Bishop Porteous, who performed dozens of exorcisms himself before recently appointing an official exorcist to his Sydney Archdiocese. “It would be good if the ministry [of exorcism] were established in dioceses around Australia and priests were appointed who had the competency to carry it out,” he says.
But the issue of exorcism is a sensitive one, even inside the church. The practice is an official part of the church’s duties, but it has largely been ridiculed in popular culture ever since actress Linda Blair turned her head backwards and launched projectile green vomit across the screen in the 1973 film The Exorcist. Although popular culture focuses on Catholic exorcism, the practice of casting out the Devil is not unique to Roman Catholicism. Other Christian sects, as well as Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, each have their own rites for expelling evil spirits.
Exorcists say that the signs of demonic presence can include someone speaking in a language they know nothing of, abnormal physical strength and a violent aversion to the cross and other images of the Catholic faith. Psychologists and scientists dismiss the notion of demonic possession, saying exorcists are simply casting their rites over people with serious psychological disorders who are in need of medical treatment. And even within the church, opinions are divided, with some priests believing the ancient rite is out of step with modern beliefs. “I am not sure this represents mainstream Catholic thinking,” says one senior priest who asked not to be named. “I think that good psychiatric treatment, rather than exorcism, will generally resolve people’s problems.”
When Bishop Porteous said earlier this year that an exorcist had been appointed for the Sydney Archdiocese – a decision that was strongly backed by Cardinal George Pell – there was a mixed response from people on Catholic websites. One person wrote: “The last thing we want in this climate for the Catholic Church is to be presenting equally ‘kooky stuff’ – old wives’ tales, stuff that more rightly belongs in the category of superstition than serious religion. When it is coming from bishops and Vatican officials, it is all the more worrying.” The Catholic Weekly declined to discuss the topic with The Weekend Australian Magazine, while several bishops also did not return calls on the subject.
“There would be some Catholics, including in the clergy, who would be very sceptical about all of this,” says Bishop Peter Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop with the Archdiocese of Melbourne. “I can understand where they are coming from, but I think they are naive.”
Given this debate, it’s not surprising that exorcists in Australia have traditionally shunned publicity. “We have had a sort of torpor in the church with this whole business of the demonic, but I just thank God that a lot of people are waking up to it now,” says Father Gregory Jordan, who is the official exorcist for Brisbane’s Catholic Archdiocese.
Father Jordan is one of only a handful of officially appointed exorcists in the Catholic Church in Australia. There is one is Sydney, but his identity remains secret; and none in Melbourne, although that situation is said to be “under review”. Bishop Porteous says he does not know how many official exorcists there are in Australia, because no one keeps figures. But he would like to see a lot more, ideally one for each of Australia’s 32 dioceses.
Very few priests know how to conduct an exorcism, and they are only allowed to do so after being granted permission by a bishop. This shortage of exorcists, it seems, is a global one. “Too many bishops are not taking this seriously and are not delegating their priests in the fight against the Devil,” says the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who claims to have performed the rite 70,000 times. “You have to hunt high and low for a proper trained exorcist.”
In 1993, Father Amorth co-founded the International Association of Exorcists with Father Davies. The secretive organisation is now believed to have around 300 members, but these numbers are still considered to be too low. In the US the shortage of qualified exorcists is such that a conference of Catholic bishops was held in Baltimore last month to discuss ways to recruit and train more exorcists.
Father Jordan, 80, says he has been performing exorcisms at the rate of around one a week for the past seven years and that demand for his services is rising, especially on the Gold Coast. “I regard the Gold Coast as Sodom and Gomorrah,” he chuckles. “It should be pounded with fire and brimstone.”
But Father Jordan is scathing of those who dismiss as fiction the notion of demonic possession of a person or a home. “It is nothing to do with mental illness when you see a household where the dog refuses to go into the room where there is a problem; where it is distinctly cold for no reason; where physical contact is made by night visitors and where the cat jumps right through the wire door at the back.”
Likewise, Father Jordan says some of the battles he has fought with demons cannot be explained by science. “It does not occur in most everyday exorcisms, but I have seen the sort of stuff which Hollywood would go for. When people react badly to the exorcism, I’ve seen the convulsions, the rigid bodies, the frothing, the gibbering, the [speaking in unknown] tongues.”
Bishop Porteous says most exorcisms are a far cry from those portrayed in Hollywood. “You often go through a prayer of exorcism and nothing external will happen to that person at all and they will say only that they feel a gentle relief. But other times there can be a more dramatic reaction, where the body reacts by swaying or writhing on the floor. The demonic presence can also react with a voice that responds in anger and ridicule at the exorcist. The voice will sometimes be gruffer than the person’s voice with lots of swearing.”
Bishop Porteous is wary of the media’s traditionally sensationalist portrayal of exorcism and he takes some persuading before he agrees to recount his most dramatic experiences. “I have seen things like the face of a woman changing to be like the face of a monkey. The face changed and it was quite eerie. Sometimes I have seen hate in the eyes of someone as they lunged at me. But these are definitely not the normal experiences.”
Earlier this year Father Amorth published Memoirs of an Exorcist, in which he recounts how some of his clients vomited up objects such as nails or glass. “You get used to being vomited over,” he told The Times in Britain. “I once performed an exorcism on a woman who managed to hit me in the face with a stream of vomit from the other side of the room – physically impossible.”
Bishop Elliott says the church is “cautious” about how to respond to the growing number of people who claim to be possessed. “We don’t jump straight into exorcism,” he says. “We always seek a rational explanation for the phenomenon first.” He asks them to first take a psychological test. “We look to see if their experience has a natural cause or psychological origins,” Bishop Elliott says. “We don’t want to be seen to be treating natural phenomena as if they were paranormal. You wouldn’t give an exorcism for the flu.”
Treading on medicine’s toes?
Critics point out that priests are poorly qualified to diagnose mental illness and are likely to assume that any behaviour in people which they cannot clearly explain may be the work of the Devil. Severe psychological disorders such as schizophrenia or Tourette syndrome can produce symptoms similar to those who claim to be possessed by spirits. “People who say that they hear voices, especially if those voices are saying nasty things, may well be suffering from schizophrenia,” says Bob Montgomery, a clinical and forensic psychologist and former president of the Australian Psychological Society.
Another psychologist, Craig Forbes, warns there is a danger that exorcism could prevent people seeking medical treatment for their condition. “The risk is that psychosis may go undiagnosed and treated inappropriately. The person could then self-harm or go off and harm other people.” But Father Jordan says that if the diagnosis is unclear, there is nothing wrong with performing an exorcism just in case. “It won’t do any harm; it’s like painting a house that’s just been painted.”
Dr Montgomery says he is not surprised that more people are approaching the church to seek exorcisms. “This is a part of the anti-science, pro-superstition shift in our culture, where people are clinging to all sorts of mythical things.” He says the only reason why some exorcisms might seem to be successful is the placebo effect – where people feel better in the false belief that they have been cured.
“Don’t underestimate how frequent or strong the placebo effect can be in a situation like an exorcism,” he says. “There are lots of ways of looking at the universe and for different people they are all valid. I have no problem with it [exorcism]. It is just another view of the universe that does not have a scientific basis.”
Bishop Porteous argues that when it comes to exorcism, science is in retreat. “I think we have come through a period in history when there was a tendency to dismiss the miraculous and devils and angels and so forth. I think we are now shifting back to realising that all things cannot be explained medically and scientifically.”
In an exorcism manual written by Bishop Porteous, he distinguishes between major and minor exorcisms, saying that major exorcisms deal with possession, while minor ones deal with oppression. “With oppression, people are still in control of their wills and are able to reflect on their condition, whereas with possession, it appears that something has taken over their will,” he writes. “In a minor exorcism, prayer is addressed to God to deliver the person from evil. In a major exorcism, as well as invoking the power of God, the demon is directly addressed in the name of Jesus and commanded to leave.”
In his manual Bishop Porteous says the biblical story of the Gerasene demoniac is an example of the destructive power of demons. “He lived among the tombs. He would howl and self-harm, cutting himself with stones. It is a picture of a human being robbed of dignity.”
Bishop Porteous says he bases his exorcisms on the exorcism rite issued by the Vatican in 1999, which replaced the original exorcism rite of 1614. While some exorcists perform the rite in people’s homes, Bishop Porteous prefers to do them inside a church, because it gives him an instant advantage against the Devil. “I prefer to do it in a chapel because we are in a stronger religious environment, we are going to the house of God.”
The formal exorcism ritual includes saying prayers for around 20 minutes, imploring the demon to leave the person’s body. A cross is usually held above the person’s head and Holy water is sprinkled on everyone in the room. “Unfortunately, because of my own inadequacy, we don’t always succeed,” says Bishop Porteous. “Often the person will say there were some demons expelled, but there are still more there. So we sometimes need to do [the ritual] many times over.”
Bishop Elliott says experience is the key to a successful exorcism, and that priests need to be physically and mentally resilient. “You have to have tremendous spiritual strength to do it, because if something from the abyss comes through it can be very tricky.”
Brisbane’s Father Jordan says it’s easy to tell when an exorcism has been a success. “It is written in their face. Their faces are suddenly at peace.” After a recent exorcism, a woman told him how she felt. “She said, ‘I feel different, I feel strange. A lot more calm. I feel as though a weight has been lifted.’”
The dangers of role-playing
The portrayal of exorcism in popular culture has led to the problem of “role playing”, where people approach the church convinced that they are possessed and then act out their own Linda Blair impersonations in front of the priest. “A danger is that the genre of horror movies can affect unstable individuals and you can get the role-playing issue, which is why the issue of exorcism is handled with great discretion,” says Bishop Elliott.
The fascination with exorcism in Australia has also led to some gruesome acts by those who try to take matters into their own hands. In 1993, a Victorian, Joan Vollmer, died of heart failure after a three-day exorcism ritual enacted by her husband Ralph, a pig farmer, and some associates from a small Christian group. The group saw her erratic behaviour as evidence of demonic possession when in fact she had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
Then last year, three adults including a policeman were charged after trying to perform an exorcism on a 15-year-old boy at a camp run by the Lutheran church in South Australia. And a 2005 horror film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was inspired by the true story of a German Catholic woman, Anneliese Michel, who died in 1976 after two priests performed an exorcism on her with psychotropic drugs.
Although popular culture has not been kind to exorcism, Father Jordan maintains it is a legitimate and important service for the church to provide. “The church has the means at its disposal to counter demonic influence in ordinary life,” he says. “The point of the conference last year was to shake people into the recognition of the existence of evil and demonic influence.”
Bishop Porteous says exorcism has traditionally been a responsibility of the church and that this is unlikely to change. “There is a need for this,” he says. “There are many people who are suffering terribly from [a demonic] affliction which they feel powerless to overcome, and the church can help.”
The search for a new generation of exorcists promises to put the church back on the front line of its age-old war against the Devil. But it’s a battle that some believe has already been won. “The Devil is a finite being,” says Melbourne’s Bishop Elliott. “He or she is not omnipotent and doesn’t know everything. Christians are also aware that the Devil was beaten by Christ on the cross 2000 years ago; so whatever struggles are going on now, it’s mopping-up time.”
08 Desember 2010