Exorcisms before and now

Exorcisms before and now

The way of expelling evil spirits was taught to the apostles by Christ. Jesus’ exorcisms, just as those conducted by the apostles among the Jews and pagans later on, were famous for their effectiveness. The power over evil spirits is in a way a confirmation of the reality of Christian faith and the fruit of spreading the Good News.

The beginnings

The exorcism was quickly connected with the sacrament of baptism and here is when the history of exorcisms starts. Before baptism, catechumens underwent the so called exsufflatio rite. The catechumen turned west and blew and spat as a sign of contempt for the devil. These gestures have a symbolic and biblical character: west is the symbol of night and Satan’s dwelling place, as opposed to east, symbolically connected with the Second Coming and Christ – “The Sun King”. This custom remains in the Greek rite. The celebrant blew in the face of the catechumen referring to the words of st. Paul:

“whom will destroy with the breath of his mouth, rendering him powerless by the manifestation of his coming” (2 Thess 2:8).

After this rite came the consignatio (sealing) rite – the sign of the cross was made on the catechumen’s forehead. This meant offering them to Christ and – through a complete adherence to Jesus – completely breaking any tie with the evil spirit. In some churches these rites were followed by taking previously exorcised salt. This rite had a double meaning: salt symbolises wisdom and the cure for sickness and decay. Thanks to this combination it had a very distinct meaning of exorcism. In the period of preparation for baptism, catechumens underwent five exorcisms, after which every morning catechesis took place. The culmination point was the Sunday before Passover, when candidates in the rite of reciting the creed confirmed the exorcisms, through which their soul was freed from satan’s power. The last rite preceding baptism was renouncing Satan and adherence to Christ. This took place on Passover eve.

The heritage of Roman Ritual

This tradition is testified by Rituale romanum (Roman Ritual). The contemporary baptismal ritual only preserves one form of exorcism, expressed in the words of “Almighty, eternal God, you have send your Son to the world to remove the power of Satan, the spirit of depravity from us, and bring man, torn from darkness, to the kingdom of Your light; we humbly beg you, free this child from original sin, make it your temple and a home for the Holy Spirit.” Untill the 16th century no unified rite of exorcism existed. In 1523 Alberto Castellani published Liber sacerdotalis, which Leon X introduced as obligatory in the Church. After the modification of this rite by cardinal Santori it was used until 1602. Santori introduced various criteria for recognising possessions. Finishing this work, Paul V published the Roman Ritual in 1614 and it remains in force until today. Probably no other book survived a time as long as the exorcism rite of Paul V. It was based on centuries-long experiences of exorcists, which contributed to its constant actuality and allowed it to survive such a long time in almost unchanged shape.

Paul V’s Roman Ritual from 1614 underwent small corrections and additions in 1926 and 1953. The Second Vatican Council did not introduce any changes in this field. The last reform of exorcisms was conducted in 1999, together with the publication of the new Roman Ritual. On 4 June 1990, and then on 12 February 1991, the Congregation for Divine Worship sent the heads of the episcopates the text of a new exorcism rite – Ritual ad interim – in order for it to be tested by exorcists. The text was passed on with a ban on publication and it was edited by liturgy experts. However, many bishops and exorcists complained that during the editing process the exorcists themselves were not sufficiently consulted with, and their experience in the service of freeing was not considered. The question arose, of why the edition of the text was entrusted to the Congregation for Divine Worship, rather than to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and the Apostolic Penitentiary, which deal with other important aspects of this problem. According to them, introducing the document to them before the final acceptance would have been desirable, since the reform of exorcisms exceeds the problems of cult ceremonies. Fr. Gabriele Amorth, a known roman exorcist, said that the changes in the exorcism rite led to a limitation of their effectiveness. After some time he expressed a more moderate evaluation, but the discussion over the proper form of the exorcism goes on. Various aspects of the exorcism are disputed, such as calls for Mary, angels and saints; using exorcisms in doubtful situations for diagnostic purposes (e.g. when the exorcist is dealing with a covert presence of an evil spirit); the possibility of using the previous Paul V’s Ritual.

Exorcisms all over the world

Exorcisms are conducted until today all over the world, although in the face of numerous spiritual threats the number of exorcists in some countries proves to be insufficient (e.g. in the United States, Germany and France). The major contemporary problems arise from:

  • an apparent introduction of limits upon the possibilities of the evil spirit’s influence on man by some theologians. It springs from the conviction that Satan cannot “break into somebody’s soul”. It is true for the will, but not for the body and the psyche. Sometimes a reinterpretation of Jesus’ exorcisms appears: casting out of evil spirits is read as curing diseases, e.g. epilepsy.
  • the use of a psychological interpretation and searching for psychiatric help, limiting exorcists’ help to pastoral advice.
  • unnecessary fears and the misunderstanding of the nature of exorcism, e.g. due to social trauma (e.g. the case of “unsuccessful” exorcisms of Anneliese Michel in Germany).

This is where a weakening of the exorcist’s role in the Church comes from, together with the lack of proper pastoral care over people enslaved spiritually. However, it must be stressed that truth defends itself: exorcisms limited to psychological support do not have expected results in the sense of a real freeing from satanic influence. Depriving lay faithfuls who really need it of help questions Jesus’ clear instruction related to the service of freeing and healing (Matthew 10:7-11). Contemporarily, in the face of many threats, the service of freeing from evil spirits is more and more needed. And thanks to its effectiveness it is starting its renaissance.

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