The movie, The Exorcist, came out back in 1973, and it was an immediate sensation; millions of people were frightened by the story of a Catholic priest battling with the devil over the fate of a teenaged girl suffering from demonic possession. One of my high school classmates named John went to the see the movie one evening with a few of his friends, and his friends were inspired to play a nasty prank on him. There’s a scene in the movie in which the devil causes the girl’s bed to begin levitating, or rising up from the floor. After John’s friends dropped him off following the movie, they sneaked back into his house and, unknown to him, hid beneath his bed. A few minutes after John turned out his light and crawled into bed for the night, his buddies made the bed start rising up from the floor—and John, naturally, ran screaming from the room.
Evil things of a supernatural nature frighten us, and they should—for fear isn’t always the result of a childish prank or an over-active imagination; sometimes it’s a necessary and appropriate warning of grave danger. Our modern state of mind likes to downplay or even deny the reality of the devil, but the existence of Satan and other evil spirits has always been a teaching of the Church, and all the saints have recognized and warned that evil spirits are ceaselessly working to tempt and trick us into sharing their fate of eternal damnation. We don’t want to make the mistake of overestimating the devil or blaming him for everything that goes wrong, but it’s equally foolish to act as if he doesn’t exist or that he can’t deceive or harm us. The wise and balanced approach for us to take as Christians is to believe in the evil and hate-filled existence of Satan, but to believe even more in the loving protection of Christ. Jesus is infinitely stronger than the forces of evil, and as long as we rely on Him, we have nothing to fear.
Life has so many duties and distractions, so many pleasures and possibilities, that it’s very easy to forget its ultimate purpose: choosing and preparing ourselves for our eternal destiny. We will either be forever happy in the kingdom of God, or eternally damned in the kingdom of Satan— and if we’re wise, this inescapable truth will never be far from our consciousness. St. Paul (1 Cor 7:32-35) was so concerned over this necessity of accepting salvation in Christ that he warned his converts in the city of Corinth that even marriage—potentially a very holy state of existence—must not distract us from the need to serve the Lord. God gives us every opportunity to be saved, but it’s necessary to listen to His word and act upon it. The Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20) describes how He promised to send a great prophet, while warning, “Whoever will not listen to My words which he speaks in My Name, I Myself will make him answer for it.” Jesus, of course, came as the fulfillment of this promise, for He is Priest, Prophet, and King—and as the true light of the world, He has authority over all the forces of darkness. The Gospel of Mark (1:21-28) describes one of many instances in which He exorcised an evil spirit, setting a possessed man free from demonic possession. It’s become fashionable in some circles to claim that the stories of possession by evil spirits recorded in the Bible were actually nothing more than cases of epilepsy, a medical condition unknown to ancient peoples and misunderstood by them as something sinister. When it comes to our Gospel passage, however, this interpretation is nonsense. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God through Whom all things were created, was certainly capable of telling the difference between epilepsy and actual demonic possession. He frequently performed exorcisms during His public ministry as a sign of His power over evil and as proof of His authority as a teacher, and through His obedient death on the cross and His glorious resurrection, He forever shattered the power of sin and death. It’s up to us, however, to freely accept the share in His victory that Jesus offers us.
The Church still conducts exorcisms, but only after carefully ruling out every other possible cause for the disturbances a person is experiencing. Very few people suffer from possession or a direct demonic attack, but everyone undergoes temptation, and sometimes we might give evil spirits great influence over us by breaking God’s commands. People often forget that the movie, The Exorcist, was based on a true story. In 1949 a Lutheran couple became convinced their teenaged son was possessed. They took him to their pastor for a blessing, but when this didn’t help, he told them, “You’ll have to take him to a Catholic priest; Catholics are the ones who understand these things.” They followed this advice, and—after a fierce spiritual struggle—the priest successfully exorcised the possessing spirit, and its former victim now lives a quiet and peaceful life. It seems the boy opened himself to possession through the influence of his aunt, who was heavily involved in the occult; she introduced him to ouija boards, tarot cards, and seances— all of which are forbidden by God—and this created a pathway for evil to enter in.
Christ has given authority over evil to His Church, promising that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Rarely does this authority have to be used in a full-fledged exorcism; most often it’s available simply through receiving the sacraments. Once a mother and her son came to me for help because their home was seemingly infested by an evil spirit. It happened that both were in a state of mortal sin—and once they went to confession and were restored to God’s grace, the evil disturbances stopped. Christ’s spiritual protection is available through His Church, but we have to be willing to accept it. On another occasion a man described how his wife, a lapsed Catholic, was undergoing a terrible ordeal. She heard something menacing coming up the stairs one morning, after he had left for work; she couldn’t see anything, but was pulled out of bed, thrown to the floor, and physically beaten. In spite of this, she had no intention of confessing her sins and reforming her life—and so there was nothing I could do for her.
Jesus saves us, but only if we trust in Him and rely upon His help. If we do, there is nothing to fear. For those who live in a state of grace, Satan is like a fierce and dangerous beast restrained by an unbreakable leash; as long as don’t wander in his direction, he can’t reach us or hurt us. If we’re coming to Mass each week, receiving the sacraments regularly, and going to confession if ever we’re guilty of a mortal sin, there’s nothing to worry about; as an added measure of protection, we can make also make frequent use of holy water and wear or carry blessed medals or scapulars. We as Catholics are very fortunate to belong to a Church that clearly recognizes and understands the nature of evil, and has powerful weapons to use against it. Jesus Christ has conquered the forces of darkness, and if we stay close to Him, we too will be victorious.