Hollywood takes liberties with exorcism rite

  • January 13, 2011
ExorcismTORONTO - Exorcisms have always piqued the Hollywood imagination and provided a steady source of material for filmmakers in the horror genre. And with a new movie set for release Jan. 28, plus a reality-TV series on exorcists, Hollywood is once again entering the battleground of good versus evil.

The Rite, a horror film featuring Anthony Hopkins, is based on a book by journalist Matt Baglio about the accounts of an American exorcist. Meanwhile, the Discovery Channel is working on a reality show called The Exorcist Files.

Fr. John Horgan, a scholar on exorcisms and pastor at Vancouver’s Sts. Peter and Paul parish, was a consultant to the 2005 movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a movie loosely based on an actual case in Germany.

He cautions that Hollywood versions of exorcism usually provide a “liberal” interpretation of the actual rite. Scenes of “being chained and tied up has nothing to do with the Catholic rite of exorcism,” he said.

“Ours is very sober, reverent. Heads do not turn around” as was made famous in a scene from the 1973 film The Exorcist, the most profitable horror film of all time.

An exorcism is the ritual of evicting demons or other spiritual entities from a person or place believed to be possessed. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an exorcism is performed by an exorcist who asks “publicly and authoritatively” in Christ’s name “that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion.” This power comes from Jesus who exorcised demons in the Bible.

While Hollywood may play up the drama of exorcisms, the key message about the ancient “blessing” is not how evil takes over, Horgan said. It’s how the power of God always triumphs in the end.

Hollywood’s exorcism revival may be taking a cue from renewed interest in the ancient practice by the Catholic Church. Medieval Christian liturgy expert Prof. Barry Graham of the Toronto School of Theology notes that the special office of exorcist in the Roman Church ceased in the seventh century and has never really been revived. But Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, announced in 2007 that the Vatican was encouraging every bishop to appoint at least one exorcist for their diocese.

In November, American Catholic bishops held a training workshop to instruct priests about the ancient rite.

Only priests with proper training who are “outstanding in piety, prudence and integrity of life” and have the bishop’s permission are allowed to perform the sacramental.

There are two forms of exorcism. A minor or simple exorcism is performed during baptism when Catholics pray an intercessory prayer directed to God, the Virgin Mary and the saints. A major or solemn exorcism involves prayers seeking liberation from demonic possession and the use of a crucifix, holy water, oil and blessed salt. It can take several exorcisms to free a person from evil spirits.

Amorth has written about a shortage of trained exorcists and an increasing need for exorcisms in response to a rise in new age, occult and satanic practices.

There are no numbers for exorcists or exorcisms in Canada and no official statistics for the universal Church because dioceses don’t reveal the names of their exorcists or publicize their work.

Reported exorcisms in Canada are few, with Ottawa reporting no more than four per year within the past five years. Vancouver receives about a dozen inquiries each year and Toronto has been without a major exorcism in decades.

The archdiocese of Ottawa has one official exorcist and Calgary has at least one. Toronto has two and Edmonton and Vancouver have on-call priests trained to perform exorcisms.

Critics argue symptoms of demonic possession can have a medical explanation. But Fr. Greg Bittmann, chancellor of the archdiocese of Edmonton, says careful scrutiny is important to the exorcist’s work. According to Church rules, those requesting the rite have to undergo medical and psychological assessments by qualified doctors. Only then can a bishop give authorization for an exorcism.

Freed from the devil's grasp

The exorcism began after Mass as the exorcist and several parishioners gathered around a troubled young man and started praying over him, recalls Fr. Joseph Muldoon, episcopal vicar of the Ottawa archdiocese.

Muldoon, who oversees the work of Ottawa’s lone official exorcist, is not an exorcist himself but this was one of two exorcisms he assisted over the years. (Both occurred outside Canada.)

Muldoon joined in praying for the young man who dabbled in drugs and the occult. He exhibited one of the signs of demonic possession: a supernatural strength requiring him to be restrained by several people to prevent harm to himself and others around him.

The priest performing the exorcism, trained under the ancient rite of exorcism, blessed the man with holy water. He then placed a crucifix and Bible on his chest, some of the norms of the rite established in 1614.

“The priest gradually, slowly commanded the evil spirit to leave him and never to return, to be placed at the foot of the cross,” Muldoon told The Catholic Register.

The young man was invited to say Jesus’ name and pray the “Our Father” with the community. He was freed from the devil’s grasp, said Muldoon.

-Sheila Dabu Nonato

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