Are Exorcists For Real?

In 1973, many people were introduced to something the Catholic world has known about since the time of Christ: exorcism. The movie, The Exorcist, was one of the most profitable “horror” movies ever made and was based on a book by the same title, written by William Peter Blatty. Blatty said that while he researched exorcisms, the book was fictional: “When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones.” Needless to say, Blatty also wanted it to be authentic.

So, is exorcism real? Are there exorcists? Yes and yes, although the real stuff is both more mundane and more chilling than any fictional account.

In an interview with Msgr. John Esseff, an exorcist for the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania for over 40 years, he said people should always remember that spiritual warfare is not a fight between equals.  The devil hates us, according to him, but what is more important is that God loves us.

‘Don’t be surprised when you put on a uniform that you get shot at,’ Msgr. Esseff said.  ‘We [Christians] wear the military armor of Christ. Pray for a canopy of angels around you, below you and beside you to protect you.’  According to him, one-third of the angels rebelled and were thrown into hell.  ‘Humans also have that same opportunity to obey or disobey,’ he explained. ‘We are on trial and we who are praising and honoring God have no reason to fear.’

Msgr. Esseff lamented that we have heard very little from the Catholic pulpit about the devil in the last 50 years, so people often don’t take evil seriously anymore. ‘The need for exorcism has become epidemic because people have stopped going to confession,’ he said. ‘The absolute evil is sin and the devil is the one that promotes that.  Sin is what we should fear because it opens the door to Satan.’

The remedy, Msgr. Esseff said, is the sacrament of confession.

Typically, a diocese has an exorcist (always a priest), appointed by the bishop. The exorcist’s role is generally not widely-known (one can imagine the “hubbub” that might surround him should his identity and role be made public) but the bishop will call upon him when necessary. It will come as no surprise to most people of faith that evil is very real, and must be fought with great care and great prayer. The Church cautions us as well, not to invite evil with things many people see as innocuous: Ouija boards, tarot cards, psychics and the like.

One exorcist, “Fr. Patrick” (his identity is kept secret) said the faithful needn’t worry:

He explained that if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear.

‘If a person is living a good faith life, they already have a great deal of protection from our Lord,’ Fr. Patrick said. ‘It’s a matter of trust.  Increasing that trust is a function of their relationship with God.  If they are a foxhole type of pray-er, they are probably going to be frightened,’ he said.  ‘But if they have a relationship with God, they are going to see God at work in their life and feel his presence.’

Fr. Patrick pointed out that even if we experience being afraid at times, that does not mean we don’t trust in God.  ‘If I was going to say, I’m never afraid, that’s presumptuous,’ he said. ‘What is important is to trust in the Lord and keep journeying with him.’

Fr. Gabriel Amorth has been the chief exorcist in Rome for many years. However, should one pass him on the street, one would see a simple, kindly man, dedicated to the priesthood. There is nothing about his demeanor that draws attention, much less thinking that this man has some sort of superpower.  Matt Baglio’s 2007 book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, tells the story of Fr. Amorth’s appointment as an exorcist and his work. Fr. Amorth prefers that the focus of not be on him, but on telling people the truth:

‘The world must know that Satan exists … The devil and demons are many and they have two powers, the ordinary and the extraordinary.’

The 86-year-old Italian priest of the Society of St. Paul and official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome explained the difference.

‘The so-called ordinary power is that of tempting man to distance himself from God and take him to Hell. This action is exercised against all men and women of all places and religions.’

Fr. Amorth, as with other exorcists, reminds the faithful that the most powerful weapon against evil is faith.  Indeed, there may be times in a person’s life or times in history when evil seems to be more prevalent, but those with faith know that nothing is more powerful than the love of Christ both for us and for His Church.

Exorcism and exorcists are real, because sometimes we need them. However, Christ is the shepherd; we are His sheep, and He protects us from predators. No person who remains in the state of grace and who frequents the sacraments has need to worry; Christ truly abides in them.