Exorcisms and the Church

Below are excerpts from Wanda Pratnicka's book
"Possessed by Ghosts - Exorcisms in 21st Century" 

I have often wondered why so many people turn to me to ask me for exorcism and not directly to a priest. After all, it's part of their duties. It turns out that nearly all of my clients have previously sought for help from the church. Many traveled from parish to parish in vain. Some even went all the way to the Vatican, also in vain. The priests' reactions to this kind of request are varied. Some order the petitioners to pray and repent their sins, others believe that the client's state is payment for their sinful lives, others again direct them to a psychiatrist. Only a very few assessed that what was really needed was exorcism but added instantly that exorcisms were not performed in their parish. These people were more likely to meet with indifference to their problems than with any kind of help. There are those among my clients on whom exorcisms were performed either once or several times. Unfortunately, they did not always help, or they helped only for a short time.

The answer to the questions which had taxed me came during an exorcists' conference. It turned out that there were only five of them in the whole of Poland. If these five exorcists were to look after the people of just one town I know from my own experience that they would have their hands full. And since there are only five of them in the whole of the country it is no wonder that people have no chance of getting to see them. Nor does everyone know where to find them because unfortunately in their parishes there is no-one who could let them know. The same is true, unfortunately, in other countries. Even Italy, or the Vatican itself, is not in a much better situation.

I couldn't understand why this should be so. I found out that in churches of other persuasions one can receive an exorcism without any problems. Since that is so, why do the priests of the Catholic Church not want to perform it, why don't they want to help? Where does their passivity towards so many people in need of help stem from? I have directed these questions to the priests themselves. In my conversations with them I argued that Jesus was the greatest exorcist and therefore his priests have assumed that role as continuations of his teachings. They should do what he once started. I regard it as a betrayal of Christ that they teach what he taught but do not do as he did. Furthermore, their passivity contradicts Jesus' teaching. In St Mark's gospel we read: "And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils" (Mark 16, v.17). Jesus gave this power not only to the apostles and disciples, but to all people who believe in Him. The promise of this power is still valid today and every human being can make use of it. And because of his vocation, the priest more than anyone. I can understand that a possessed person won't make use of it, being unable to do so under the influence of a ghost, but why do the priests not do it? Since God gave us the power to free ourselves from the ghosts possessing us it must mean that He didn't want us to suffer or to regard possession as a punishment for our sins. Yet unfortunately that is the way many priests explain the causes of the possession experienced by the people coming to them.

Since the priests were unable to explain these matters directly, I looked for an answer in the history of the Church. I discovered the reason why priests were unable to meet the demands that are placed on them. I hope this will bring understanding to all those who needed their help and, at the same time, will mollify the bitterness stemming from the fact that they did not receive it, accusing the priests and the Church of ill will.

From the times of Jesus every Christian could be an exorcist. In the middle of the third century, however, at the time that it was starting up, the Church limited these powers and started to bring in various formulae all the way through to the ordination of exorcists. From then on it wasn't permitted for a believer to perform exorcisms. Those could be done only by an appropriate person, chosen and ordained by the Church. These restrictions became more and more severe until in the 16th century at the Council of Trent the Church banned completely the carrying out of any exorcisms, even by priests. This ban was in force for nearly three centuries.

It was only in 1886 that Pope Leo XIII overturned this ban. He was possessed by evil ghosts as he was saying Holy Mass. He composed a prayer about cleansing, distributed it to the bishops all over the world and instructed that it be said after every mass. He also wrote a special exorcism which he ordered his bishops and priests to say in their dioceses. In just one moment they were obliged to do something about which none of them had the faintest idea. There were no books left from the times when exorcism was performed and permitted, nor any descriptions of exorcisms written by priests. Even if such things had existed, they had most probably been destroyed. So all knowledge of exorcism was forgotten. The only thing the Church possessed was a ritual dating from 1614. It's like an instruction manual for those exorcising, but it was written for the needs and conditions of those times - the times of the Inquisition, heresy, stockpiles and tortures. Transferring it to the contemporary world gives scant help and, consequently, has scant results. Its greatest shortcoming is that a person is often exorcised over a period of many years. Nevertheless, this knowledge is better than none. Apart from this ritual, there are in existence only two other documents about exorcism - from the 9th and 10th centuries. That is all the priest-exorcist has to draw on for any kind of knowledge. It should be passed on from the master to the apprentice, but the masters of exorcism have all died out during the previous three centuries.

And so it was that the priests, knowing nothing about exorcisms, not learning about them in seminaries, suddenly, from one day to the next, were obliged to carry them out. It's one thing to speak the words of a formula because the superior commands it, and another thing entirely to perform an exorcism because one believes in its power and efficacy. It's like the difference between night and day. One has the power to change things, the other does not. It's a bit like giving someone an instruction manual and ordering them, e.g. to operate on an appendix or to build a high-rise block. The results will be like in a lottery, good one time, bad another. (...) 

All exorcists were ordained by their bishops. Many priests refused ordination because performing exorcisms frightened them. Many were forced to perform this role and often considered this "promotion" to be a punishment. Besides which, performing an exorcism under compulsion without the vocation meant the attempt was doomed in advance to be unsatisfactory. In 1972 Pope Paul VI abolished the ordination of exorcists. Now every priest can decide for himself whether or not he wishes to become an exorcist. The problem is that not only does nobody teach it in any seminary, the subject is never even mentioned. Hence many priests regard exorcism as a superstition, some relic dug up from the past, and therefore of no use to anyone. (...) 

A possessed person rarely gets help because priests help only when the possessed person blasphemes against the Church or against God. They ascribe the possession not to the ghosts of dead people, but to the devil, or Satan. (...)