Exorcist boot camp: preparing for battle with the devil

A priest performing the rite wears a purple stole. A crucifix and holy water are among the religious items used in the rite. (CNS Photo)VATICAN CITY - A call to arms — to take up the weapons of the rosary and prayer — rang out at a recent international conference on exorcism in Rome.

The Church needs more training of both priests and laypeople in fighting the influence of the devil and bringing spiritual healing to those in need, attendees said.

"This is warfare. We've gotten way behind. We've lost the concept of spiritual warfare," said Msgr. Marvin Mottet, the official exorcist of the diocese of Davenport, Iowa.

The 80-year-old retired priest said that about once a month he sees a serious case of possession and "tons" of cases of demonic influence in which people are being "bothered or attacked by evil spirits." Those kinds of cases, he said, are "a daily thing."

Nuncio says priests targeted in Cote d'Ivoire; Caritas priest missing

A refugee from Ivory Coast carries her belongings as she walks through Grand Gedeh County in eastern Liberia. (CNS photo/Simon Akam, ReutersWARSAW, Poland - The Vatican's representative to the Cote d'Ivoire has said Catholic priests have been targeted by armed groups during the current conflict, but added that he still hopes "full-scale civil war" can be avoided in the West African country.

In Rome, officials of Caritas Internationalis, the Church's charitable aid agency, said one of the priests kidnapped was Fr. Richard Kissi, diocesan director of Caritas in Abidjan, who was kidnapped March 29 by an armed group.

In a March 30 telephone interview, the nuncio, Archbishop Ambrose Madtha, told Catholic News Service, "I wouldn't call it a civil war as yet — the rebel army has been trying to attack certain cities, and this is why the violence is continuing."

He said students at the main Catholic seminary in Abidjan, the country's largest city, had been evacuated after its buildings were occupied by rebel soldiers. He added that a Catholic priest had been abducted while helping supervise the evacuation, while another had been attacked while returning from a late-night radio broadcast and had been hospitalized. He would not identify the priests by name.

Loving our enemies

Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague shot to death in Guatemala two years ago, used to share at Oblate gatherings some advice that Daniel Berrigan once gave him. Lorenzo, contemplating an act of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war, was told by Berrigan: If you can't do this without becoming bitter, then don't do it! Do it only if you can do it with a mellow heart! Do it only if you can be sure you won't end up hating those who arrest you!

That's hard to do; but, in the end, it's the ultimate challenge, namely, to not hate those who oppose us, to not hate our enemies, to continue to have gracious and forgiving hearts in the face of misunderstanding, bitter opposition, jealousy, anger, hatred, positive mistreatment, and even the threat of death.

And to be a disciple of Jesus means that, at some point, we will be hated. We will make enemies. It happened to Jesus and he assured us that it will happen to us.

Toward Jerusalem

Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.  

We gain life by living in the Spirit

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.

A contemporary apologetics

One of the reasons why we don't often find a good Christian apologetics today is because so many of our best theologians write at such a level of academia that their thoughts are not really accessible to the ordinary person in the pews. Apologists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are rare. We have great thinkers in theology today, but unfortunately many of them cannot be profitably read outside of academic settings.

With this as a background, I would like to recommend a very helpful book, Faith-Maps, just published by Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. Gallagher has a background in literature which keeps him sensitive to the kind of language which can speak to the popular mind and still remain the language of depth and soul. That's the gift he brings to this book.

What Gallagher does in Faith-Maps is take ten major Christian thinkers (John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothee Soelle, Charles Taylor, Pieranglo Sequeri, and Pope Benedict XVI) and write a brief chapter on each of them within which he explains, in lay terms, the kernel of their major insight. Moreover he does this with a certain apologetic intent, that is, to have each of them deliver a short, clear challenge to our generation, especially as pertains to our struggle with faith and with church. And in doing this, Gallagher proves himself a both a gifted and an unbiased teacher: He lays out the central concepts of these thinkers in a way that, for the most part at least, is accessible to the non-professional and in a way that doesn't fall into either liberal or conservative bias.

Open your eyes to the truth

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 3 (1 Samuel 16:1. 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41)

What is a person worth? Most cultures teach us subtly and at times blatantly that appearance is everything. A person’s worth is measured by their beauty, the proportion and appearance of their bodies, the clothes they wear and the way their hair is styled, and that indefinable quality that seems to cling to celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers. Lookism even plays out in political campaigns with the advantage going to those with a better media image.

The Lord is with us, in good times and bad

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 27 (Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)

The experience at Massah and Meribah is a recurring theme in the history of the human race. The Israelites have just been rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt by means of powerful signs and wonders. God has humbled the superpower of that age and made mockery of a pharaoh with divine pretentions. They are free, and God has promised to lead them to a land where they can continue to live in freedom.

But now the adrenalin of the escape has abated and reality has set in. They are in a hostile desert — food and water are scarce — and they have no idea where they are or where they are going. With the onset of fear come the complaining, quarrelling and the testing of God that will characterize their entire journey through the wilderness.

People have notoriously short memories when it comes to the graces that God bestows on them. For that matter, this memory deficit also applies to the good that others do for us. Their cry echoes with those of so many throughout history even in our own day: Is the Lord among us? Does God even exist? The attitude of the Israelites at that point is shared by people everywhere: If I am a believer, why should I suffer? When the going gets tough, faith is the first victim. And the Israelites want to go back into Egypt, their place of slavery, because in their minds the life was easier and more predictable and secure. Forgotten is the pain and bitterness of slavery.

People usually want to go back into their own Egypt. Sometimes they imagine an earlier time in which society was more wholesome and nice and people were more civil and kind. They might remember a previous job, conveniently forgetting how badly they were treated by the boss. Or they might want to return to a romanticized period in the Church rather than face the challenges of the present. All of these reactions are long on fear and short on faith. Faith is not doctrine or creeds but an unwavering trust in the presence and the loving care of God. It does not cut and run at the first sign of adversity, confusion or suffering.

Paul recognizes that it is by means of this faith that we are placed in right relationship with God. With this faith comes reconciliation and peace but even more: the gift of the Spirit of God that is poured into our hearts. This Spirit enables us to be loving and faith-filled people regardless of what is going on around us. It is a sure sign that God is with us and that we share in God’s glory.

In this haunting and rather mysterious story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well we learn that God is still providing for our needs but now the focus is on more than day-to-day survival. Jesus has stepped beyond the ordinary in this encounter: He is in hostile Samaritan territory; He is talking to a woman alone. The conversation gets off to a shaky start with her brusque and sarcastic response to His request for water. Jesus does not help the conversation for He speaks in riddles, symbols and metaphors in His attempt to enlighten her. Just as God provided water for one kind of thirst in the desert, God now provides “living water” for a deeper sort of thirst. The Spirit will quench the thirst for God and transcendence and will never fail or give out.

But with this gift of the Spirit there is a challenge. When the woman asks for the legitimate place of divine worship she is told that from now on it is neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerizim. God is now to be worshipped in the human heart and soul through the presence of the Spirit. In a sense, the ground upon which we stand is holy for God is present. Worshipping in spirit and truth describes a personal and direct encounter with God. This personal gift of the Spirit must never be domesticated or given into the control of others for it is the gift of access to God that Jesus Himself gives us. Is the Lord with us or not? Look within!

Saved by one man's sacrifice

We are saved by the death of Jesus! All Christians believe this. This is a central tenet within the Christian faith and the center of almost all Christian iconography. Jesus' death on a cross changed history forever. Indeed, we measure time by it. The effect of his death so marked the world that, not long after he died, the world began to measure time by him. We are in the year 2011 since Jesus was born.

But how does this work? How can one person's death ricochet through history, going backwards and forwards in time, being somehow beyond time, so as to effect past, present, and future all at the same time, as if that death was forever happening at the present moment? Is this simply some mystery and metaphysics inside of the Godhead that isn't meant to be understood within any of our normal categories?

Too often, I believe, the answer we were given was simply this: It's a mystery. Believe it. You don't have to understand it.

Following Jesus - According to the letter or the spirit?

I work and move within church circles and find that most of the people I meet there are honest, committed, and for the most part radiate their faith positively. Most church-goers aren't hypocrites. What I do find disturbing within church circles though is that too many of us can be bitter, angry, mean-spirited, and judgmental, especially in terms of the very values that we hold most dear.

It was Henri Nouwen who first highlighted this, commenting with sadness that many of the really angry, bitter, and ideologically-driven people he knew he had met inside of church circles and places of ministry.  Within church circles, it sometimes seems, everyone is angry about something.  Moreover, within church circles, it is all too easy to rationalize our anger in the name of prophecy, as a healthy passion for truth and morals.

The logic works this way: Because I am sincerely concerned about an important moral, ecclesial, or justice issue, I can excuse a certain amount of neurosis, anger, elitism, and negative judgment, because I can rationalize that my cause, dogmatic or moral, is so important that it justifies my mean spirit: I need to be this angry and harsh because this is such an important truth!

Building an Ark

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.

You will recognize these words as the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem, If, and they, as much as any scriptural commentary, provide the key to understand the story of Noah and the Ark.

What is the meaning of this story? Are we really to believe that at a certain time in history the whole earth was flooded and that one man, Noah, had the foresight to build a boat on which he had placed a male and female of every living species on earth so as to save them from extinction?  Clearly the story is not to be taken literally, as a concrete event in the history of this planet. Like a number of other biblical stories of the origins of history, it is not an historical video-tape of what happened but is rather a story of the human heart, a story which is truer than true in that it happens again and again inside of our lives. And how does it happen? What is the meaning of the story of Noah and the Ark?