Magazine article Insight on the News

Are They Demons or Just Delusions? Popular Culture Continues to Debate Whether Exorcisms Are Necessary to Cleanse a Demon-Filled World or Just a Cheaper Alternative to Conventional Psychiatric Therapy

Magazine article Insight on the News

Are They Demons or Just Delusions? Popular Culture Continues to Debate Whether Exorcisms Are Necessary to Cleanse a Demon-Filled World or Just a Cheaper Alternative to Conventional Psychiatric Therapy

Article excerpt

Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

Terrance Cottrell Jr. was winding down his summer in Milwaukee, getting ready for a new school year at a new school. The boy did not live the untroubled life of other 8-year-old children, suffering as he did from autism, and his mother would be sending him to a school better able to deal with his condition. Then one Sunday morning in August he was made the focus of a religious ceremony of a kind that still mystifies most of the public. The Cottrell family minister, Ray Hemphill, performed an exorcism to cast out demons and thereby heal Terrance of his condition. The faithful gathered around the boy in their storefront Apostolic church and held him on the ground even as he struggled against them. Because of his diminished capacity to communicate, a result of autism, Terrance was unable to tell the pastor that he could not breathe. After two hours of prayers for exorcism, someone finally noticed the boy wasn't breathing. Hemphill was arrested, and once more the public interest was alive with debate and fascination about exorcism.

Who, after all, is performing these ceremonies? Have we not learned from modern psychiatry that mental illness is not caused by demonic possession? Or was C.S. Lewis correct in saying, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was in convincing the world he didn't exist"?

Most of what the popular culture knows about exorcism and demonic possession is gleaned from The Exorcist, a film classic that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Since its release this imaginative horror picture, based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, has whetted an appetite and widespread interest in exorcism that in turn has produced other films, books and broadcasts that have tended to encourage the practice.

Biblical literalists point to exorcisms performed by Jesus, citing Luke 8:26-40 and Mark 1:23-36. These accounts, as well as Ephesians 6:10-18, which are seen as a charter for spiritual warfare, gave rise to the practice of exorcism among early Christians.

As a functionary of the Christian Church, the role of exorcist as an official office is mentioned in a letter by Pope Cornelius in 253, reports John L. Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter. The practice continued within the church but became less popular following the Enlightenment, which brought with it Western rationalism and a bias toward science. The minor order of exorcism nonetheless remained a part of the regular training of priests for ordination.

This wasn't changed until 1972, when Pope Paul VI removed the order of exorcism from the training of every priest and left it to the bishop of each diocese to appoint an exorcist. The rite and rule of exorcism stayed the same until 1998, when the Vatican released a revision. The new rule acknowledges that many of the conditions that once were thought to result from demonic possession now are recognized as mental disorders. On the other hand the Vatican stated quite clearly that the devil is at work in the world and Christians must beware.

Few express concern that the devil is sending his minions out to seize and possess souls better than the Vatican's appointed exorcist, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth. At age 75 he has been a priest for 50 years and tells the London Sunday Telegraph's Gyles Brandreth, "I speak with the devil every day. I talk to him in Latin. He answers in Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in and day out, for 14 years." In this rare interview Amorth said that in 1986 he was asked to be assistant to the only exorcist in Rome at the time, the Rev. Candido Poletti. Amorth says he quickly "realized how much work there was to be done and how few exorcists there were to do it" while in training under Poletti.

Since then he claims to have performed more than 50,000 exorcisms.

According to Amorth, there are three types of exorcisms: one in which an object (such as your house or car) is exorcised, another performed at every baptism in which the devil formally is renounced, and finally the type in which demons are cast from the body of a victim. …

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