Movie Review: The Rite and a Reflection on the Church's Rite of Exorcism

Author: Msgr Charles Pope

Movie Review: The Rite and a Reflection on the Church's Rite of Exorcism

Msgr. Charles Pope

I saw the movie “The Rite” today. I am not a professional movie reviewer but I will say, overall, I liked the movie. It’s most fundamental message is a good one: “You have to have faith to defeat the Devil.”  The movie follows the journey of a young seminarian who is struggling in his faith. He is sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. Beginning with great cynicism he is forced in stages to confront his own lack of faith and finds a breakthrough only when forced to decide to believe or not. I’ll leave the conclusion for your viewing.

I have also read the book  The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio. The movie is only very loosely based on the book. The main subject in the book is not a troubled seminarian but an experienced priest of strong faith. The greatest strength of the book is that it is carefully researched and draws deeply on the Catechism, scripture, and the official instructions of the Church for exorcists. The movie, as you might expect goes more for the sensational and takes a lot of cinematic liberty with Catholic rites. The book however is careful and balanced, depicting the Church as also careful and balanced when it comes to exorcism. I strongly recommend the book for any who wish to learn more of this ancient Rite of the Church.

I would like to say a few things about exorcism that are important to know and remember, especially when sensationalistic movies etc. take liberties. Allow these observations of mine in no particular order.

1. The Church is very careful when it comes to approving an exorcism. Natural causes must be ruled out as a likely cause of the behavior of the afflicted person. Bishops normally will not approve an exorcism unless, and until, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, as well as medical doctors have thoroughly examined the afflicted person and generally concur that natural or organic causes are not at work. There is no rush to perform formal exorcisms if the guidelines are followed. The Ritual stipulates that an exorcist may use these prayers only when he is “morally certain” that the person he is praying over is possessed. Numerous mental illnesses can be mistaken for possession. Hence a careful and thoughtful evaluation is necessary by experts who do not simply reject the notion of possession but who are also not the sort to quickly presume it either.

2. The Ritual mentions three signs that indicate the possible presence of a demon: abnormal strength, the ability to speak or understand a previously unknown language, and the knowledge of hidden things. There are also possible signs in an aversion to the sacred. For example, one may experience the inability to pray or say the name of Jesus or Mary, to go to mass, or to receive communion. Another important sign is some degree of unawareness or refusal in the afflicted one of the notion that they are possessed. If some one comes to a priest and says, “I am possessed.” That is usually a sign they are not.

3. The Devil’s activity is usually distinguished in four ways: infestation, oppression, obsession, and demonic possession.

Infestation is the presence of demonic activity in a location or object. In such cases a simple blessing or saying mass on the premises will be the approach that is used.

Oppression usually involves some form of physical attack. There are noted mysterious blows or scratches inexplicably appearing on the body. Some claim to be pushed down stairs or thrown out of bed by an invisible force.

Obsession has involves an intense and persistent attack on the mind of the victim. Generally these attacks include random and obsessive thoughts that, though often absurd, are so intense that the victim is unable to free himself. There is the torment that completely dominates their thoughts.

Possession. In a demonic possession, the Devil takes temporary control of a person’s body, speaking and acting through it without the person’s knowledge. This doesn’t last indefinitely, but occurs only during moments of crisis in which the victim enters a trance state. Generally speaking, after the crisis passes, the victim will not remember what transpired (cf  The Rite, Baglio, Kindle ed Loc. 738-40)

4. At the heart of the Ritual of exorcism lie the prayers of exorcism themselves, which are broken up into two sections, known commonly as “deprecatory” and “imperative” In a deprecatory prayer, the exorcist entreats God to intervene on behalf of the person; the prayer begins “Hear, Holy Father …,” while in the imperative  prayer, the exorcist himself commands the demon to depart in the name of Jesus Christ, “I adjure you, Satan…” or “I cast you out.”

5. A new rite of exorcism was issued in 1999which replaced the previous one dating to 1952. The Ritual of 1616 is also in wide circulation. Most exorcist make use of the 1999 ritual as they must but also add the prayers from the 1952 ritual. This is due to a rather wide consensus that the 1999 ritual was “defanged.” The prayers of the 1952 and 1616 rituals are more elaborate and more commanding. To use these prayers seems permitted by the 1999 rite which states Aliae formulae deprecativae et imperativae addi possunt….(other deprecative and imperative formulas are able to be added….).

6. Priests are not simply permitted to undertake a formal exorcism on their own. The prayers of exorcism are “reserved blessings” and may only be undertaken with the permission and direction of the Bishop. Guideline thirteen of the Ritual states that the bishop can only nominate a priest who is “distinguished in piety, learning, prudence, and integrity of life.” In addition, “The priest should carry out this work of charily confidently and humbly under the guidance of the Ordinary.” (cf  The Rite, Kindle ed. Loc 1043-45)

7. It is my understanding that the appointed exorcist(s) of a diocese ought generally remain a confidential matter. It is a rather puzzling thing to me that so many exorcists, in recent years, have given public interviews and thus publically revealed their identity to third parties. This may not be strictly forbidden, but my own study and understanding of the matter is that confidentiality is the prudent and expected disposition in such things.

8. The process of an exorcism is not usually the compact, “one and done” event depicted in the movies. Exorcisms may be repeatedly performed over a number of weeks or months, even in some cases years. Sometimes relief will be had, only to have the demon return. It is also essential for the afflicted person to partake of the sacraments except where this is not possible. Confession and communion are an essential part of any deliverance.

9. Demons often hide at first and it may take a number of sessions for the exorcists to call forth a response from the demon. Usually, as the prayers, especially the imperative  ones, weary the demon and assault it, it will begin to manifest evidence of its presence.  When the demon is finally forced out into the open, the person will lose consciousness and enter into a trance. At this point, all movement and speech are controlled by the demon. During these times the person’s eyes will often roll up or down (the demon can’t bear to look at holy objects, including the priest), the hands will usually curl into claws, and the person will be taken over by a rage directed at sacred or holy objects. Typically, the person remembers nothing upon awakening (The Rite,Loc 1114-18)

10. There are not always strange or surreal things that take place in an exorcism. Often an individual may simply sit still and manifest little other than sighs, coughs or fidgeting. However there are also, in some cases, manifestations of a stronger sort, once the demon has revealed itself. These can include a strange, hoarse or deep voice, a significant change in personality, an argumentative and confrontational nature, the presence of foul odors, a strong aversion to holy water, the cross, or other sacred objects. In some cases the demon may manifest hidden knowledge of others in the room. It may also speak in languages unknown by the afflicted person. In some cases the demon may use the body of the possessed to fight back physically and often will manifest unusual strength. Finally, another sign of possession is that the afflicted person will often have little or no memory of their behavior while the demon was fully manifest.

11. Finally, a balance is evident and necessary in this matter and official Church teaching and policy reflects this careful balance.

On the one hand we, in the West, have become extremely rationalistic and reductionist. We seem to want to insist that EVERYTHING has a physical cause. With this mentality, every possible manifestation of demonic influence is usually dismissed as such and explained in terms of organic brain problems and mental illness. In many cases this may be true. But there are demons, Scripture is clear on this, and they do afflict us.

We must also avoid the tendency to easily attribute everything to the devil or demons.

The Church’s insistence on reasonably ruling out organic or natural causes is an important and cautionary measure. Making these investigations are like rumble strips that avoid a rush to conclude demons where there may be none. Great spiritual harm can be done to someone in rashly concluding possession, where there is none. Not only will other important medical and physcotherapeutic treatments be possibly delayed, but a person’s self-understanding can also be seriously distorted as well.

Careful, thorough and pastoral attention is due to those who are suspected of possible possession. The initial assessment is usually made by a parish priest. If he comes to suspect a possible case of possession, his next step ought to be to request an assessment under the auspices of the diocese. Only after a panel of experts, (to include a trained priest), recommends an exorcism , would the case come before the Bishop for a final decision. If he concurs, then the Bishop appoints the exorcist who begins the process and stays in suitable communication with the bishop. Sadly, by my reading, many dioceses are not well set up for such a process. In the west we have largely forsaken exorcism as a practice and such procedures have fallen by the wayside. Many American Bishops recently attended a workshop on the Rite of Exorcism and so we may see a careful process like to one describe re-established in more diocese. Time will tell.

In the end, see movies like “The Rite” as an exotic and extreme depiction of what is ultimately a pastoral ministry of the Church. At the heart of all ministry is love and mercy, the care of a Church who loves her children, the ministry of shepherds who tend to their flock with strength and gentleness.

Reprinted from the website of the Archdiocese of Washington, with permission.