Almost forty years ago a movie called The Exorcist was breaking box-office records and grabbing the nation’s attention. It involved a priest successfully helping a young woman possessed by an evil spirit, and it was based on the real story of a successful exorcism which occurred in Maryland in 1949 (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, p. 55). More recently, the movie The Rite, and the book on which it’s based, tells the story of a young American priest trained as an exorcist in a special course given in the Vatican; the priest was somewhat skeptical of demonic possession at first, until he apprenticed with an experienced Italian exorcist, and saw first-hand the reality of evil spirits and the harm they can do to persons under their control.
Another book was published about twenty years ago with the title An Exorcist Tells His Story. It’s by the priest who serves as the chief exorcist for the city of Rome, and contains many stories and lessons from the experiences he and other Italian priests had.
Many times people seeking their help were in fact not the victims of demonic possession, but instead suffered from psychological and emotional difficulties; however, there were also a number of cases of actual demonic possession. Most of the time, when an exorcism was called for, it was successfully performed. However, there was at least one instance when this did not happen. A priest was having great difficulty with a big, strong young man possessed by an evil spirit, and at one point was even forced to wrestle with him physically. A few days later the priest received a warning from Padre Pio, the famous Italian priest recently canonized a saint. Padre Pio told him, “Don’t waste time and strength on that young man. It is all useless.” As Padre Pio knew from a divine inspiration, nothing would work in that young man’s case–and in fact, that’s how it turned out (Amorth, p. 84).
The Church teaches us very clearly that, firstly, evil does exist and can do us immense harm, and secondly, Christ has conquered evil and is far more powerful than anyone or anything seeking to harm us. That being the case, why might an exorcism fail? Probably for the same reason we see so much wickedness and suffering in the world: insufficient love. Unlike the man in St. Mark’s Gospel (1:21-28), the young man in the story I just mentioned did not want to be freed from the power of the devil; he remained a slave to sin because he would not surrender to love. In the same way, the world around us will never be free from its slavery to Satan until it accepts God’s grace. The coming of Jesus inaugurated God’s Kingdom, but we must play our part in its completion–and love is the key.
Lucifer was the greatest of all the angels, but in his pride he rebelled against God, and in the struggle which followed, he and the one-third of the angels who followed him were forever cast out of heaven. In his fury, Lucifer–now also known as Satan–decided to spite God by leading the rest of creation into sin and evil. That’s why the devil and his evil spirits tempt us; they want us to share in their own damnation, an eternity of loveless misery. Satan succeeded in tempting Adam and Eve, thereby enslaving all of us, but God sent His Son to free us and to allow us to choose for ourselves whom we will serve: the Lord, or the devil. As we see in the Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20), Moses foretold the coming of a great prophet. Jesus fulfilled this promise, but He was far more than just a prophet; He came not only to teach of God’s Kingdom and make it present, but also to shatter the power of Satan’s kingdom. The devil himself recognized this, for in the Gospel the possessed man cried out, “Have You come to destroy us? I know Who You are–the Holy One of God!” With a simple word of command, Jesus silenced the evil spirit and forced it to leave the man. The devil has no power in the presence of perfect Love, and must flee in shame.
If every person on earth opened his or her heart to the power of God’s love, Satan and his evil spirits would immediately be evicted from earth and cast forever into hell. The fact that this has not yet happened means that the world is severely lacking in love–and you and I bear part of the blame for this, and you and I must be part of the solution. We are called to be agents of God’s love, recognizing that we are on the frontlines of the Church’s fight against evil in the world. At times we may need to fight Satan directly; demonic possession is relatively rare, but demonic harassment and temptation happens quite a bit. If a situation seems ominous or spiritually threatening, or if someone is acting very negatively and out of character, there may be an evil spirit working behind the scenes. Scripture tells us Christians have the power to bind demonic spirits in Christ’s Name; it’s simply a matter of praying very quietly, “Evil spirit, I bind you in the Name of Jesus Christ.” We can also pray the famous prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, or a deliverance prayer. Other powerful weapons against evil include prayer–particularly the rosary–fasting, and the use of holy water and blessed religious medals and scapulars. I know of cases where such things have been needed, and have been used successfully. Most of us will probably not knowingly and directly encounter spiritual evil, but all of us are called to fight Satan indirectly–by making God’s love even more visible and present in the world. We can do this by such things as sincerely worshipping the Lord here at Mass, by receiving the sacraments regularly and reverently, through Eucharistic adoration and through cultivating a devotion to Our Lady and the other saints. Also, every good deed we do, every act of love we perform, every inspiration of the Holy Spirit we respond to, makes a difference in the world; one genuine expression of love can create ripples of grace, touching many lives and weakening the power of evil all around us.
In the movie “The Exorcist” the priest willingly sacrificed his life for the sake of the possessed girl and her family, and it was this which allowed the exorcism to succeed–for Satan cannot withstand such perfect love. It’s important to keep a proper perspective: Satan does exist, but we can’t blame him for every sin we commit or for every temptation we experience. He is dangerous, but only for those who ignore or reject God’s grace. The devil is a loser, and even now his kingdom is crumbling–thanks in part to our prayers and our acts of faith and love. Jesus is graciously allowing us to share in His victory–and this is the most wonderful gift, the most exciting adventure, and the most important calling we can ever experience.