Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

In November 2010, more than 50 [Catholic] bishops and 60 priests attended a conference in Baltimore. It had nothing to do with any of the usual things—like evangelism, foreign missions, or advocacy for the poor. Instead, it was, as a news reporter described it in the beginning of his story, “The Catholic Church is having a devil of a time searching for priests who can perform exorcisms….According to [one bishop], only five or six American priests know how to [do that], and they are finding themselves overwhelmed with requests.”[i]

The Church suspects the demand is due in part to exposure on the internet to satanic rituals, occult practices, and the like. Also, some Catholics, recently coming here from Africa and Latin America, have lived in cultures in which demon possession is more common.[ii] And the U.S. isn’t the only nation that needs more exorcists. It’s also a problem in other places—like Italy and Spain.[iii]

In trying to get up to speed, just this past fall—for the first time ever—the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had the rite of exorcism translated from Latin into English. It’s available strictly to the hierarchy, who will share it only with priests actually performing exorcisms, of whom there are now about fifty.[iv] However, online I did come across what might be a bootleg copy. Seriously, what it basically is is a set of prayers, invoking the Holy Trinity and the names of some saints and angels, then several commands to cast out the demon who’s possessing a poor soul. The demon is addressed as “unclean spirit,” “spectre from hell,” “ancient serpent,” “seducer…of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent…”Periodically, the priest…

·         sprinkles holy water on the person,

·         makes the sign of the cross over his or her forehead,

·         practices the laying on of hands,

·         and sometimes breathes on the person’s face—symbolizing the power of the Spirit.[v]

I do want to stress that, in all the literature I’ve read, the Church goes to great lengths to discern whether cases brought before it are genuine. That means other possible causes are first sought out—mainly by examinations by family physicians, psychiatrists, and neurologists and, if necessary, tests as well. If a medical diagnosis is made—which is almost always the case—then the sufferer receives the proper treatment. Only when no other explanation can account for a person’s unusual and destructive behavior is it then determined that the person is possessed.[vi]

Still, telling the difference between demon possession and a medical condition—especially mental illness—that can be a very difficult thing, for their symptoms are sometimes so similar. For example, in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus’ very first miracle is for a man inhabited by an evil spirit. And that spirit cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Not me, but us.

We see that detail even more in another story—that of the possessed man living among caves and tombs. When Jesus asks the demon what its name is, it replies, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”[vii] In the time of Jesus, a legion was the largest unit in the Roman army, estimated to be as many as 5,000 soldiers.[viii] In other words, a lot of evil spirits! Well, that description could also apply to a psychological malady, namely, multiple personality disorder—when someone seems to have two or more separate identities. You know, like in popular films such as Sybil and also the Three Faces of Eve.[ix] So, was that madman among the tombs inhabited by scores of demons? Or might he have been suffering from a mental illness?[x]

And what about still another example—the man’s son whose evil spirit could not be cast out by Jesus’ disciples? The father describes what happens every time the demon attacks him:“ Teacher…whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…”[xi]We all know what that sounds like—a grand mal seizure. While Mark and Luke don’t mention it by name, Matthew does. The father says, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly…”[xii]Nevertheless, for the people of Jesus’ time, a demon was still believed to be the cause of that illness.[xiii]

There are yet other instances in the Bible where the line between demon possession and some medical illness seems very unclear. Like King Saul in the Old Testament. Remember how David playing his harp would lift him out of a state of depression? In contrast, then, there were times when Saul would be caught up in a spiritual frenzy. So, was it a demon? Or did he suffer from something like bipolar disorder?[xiv]

Regardless of whether one believes in demon possession or not, one thing we can all agree on is that evil in various forms exists in the world—that it is a pervasive and powerful and destructive force. All the time we see it in creation—either naturally or by human activity or some of both:

·         Last year’s hurricanes.

·         Epidemics that sometimes threaten to become pandemics.

And also those caused strictly by groups of people of evil intent:

·         Drug cartels.

·         Corporations that cheat their clients.

·         And, of course, the reality of war, sometimes even serving as a pretext for committing genocide—for destroying entire populations.

And what about evil visited upon individuals and families?

·         Physical, sexual, or verbal abuse?

·         Addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling?

·         Eating disorders, like anorexia?

Can these not, in their own right, be considered as demons? When we talk about things like demon possession and mental illness, it’s so important not to divide ourselves—who we are—into bits and pieces. In other words, we must remember God has created us as entire beings— that each part of us comes together with the rest to make up who we are:

·         Our minds

·         Our bodies.

·         Our emotions.

·         And our spirits.

In our earthly lives, none of these can exist apart from the others. They overlap, they affect, and they interact with one another so much we could not separate them, isolate them even if we wanted to. They are all of one piece. They make up who we are as children of God. In the words of Christopher Cook, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest and also the Director of the Project for Spirituality, Theology, and Health[xv] at the University of Durham, in Great Britain:

We [know] that psychiatric illnesses, and also a wide range of [other] disorders, [come from several sources] ,involving psychological and social, as well as physical [elements]. Why, then, should not spiritual factors also play a part? For example, if people can become depressed because they are [grieving a loved one’s death], or because of physical illness, why should they not also become depressed because of demonic [influence] in their lives?...we must keep in mind a truly holistic view of…human[s], which involves spiritual, as well as psychological, social and physical dimensions.[xvi]

 Many years ago, as a chaplain trainee, I was assigned for several months to a hospital wing often referred to as the psych-ward. Some of the patients received their treatment while staying in the locked unit. I remember once introducing myself to a fellow there who was suffering from some form of schizophrenia. When he heard me introduce myself as a “chaplain,” he knew that that word was a title for an “official” rel. person. But that didn’t seem convincing to him. In bits and pieces, he started talking about religion. But it was all so jumbled, that it didn’t make much sense. Then he questioned me about preaching, and I finally discovered what he was trying to get at. In his eyes, a truly religious authority was someone who could really give a sermon. So in response, I said: “Well, if you want to know whether I can preach, the answer is ‘Yes, I can!’” Then he smiled a big smile, and I knew we had made a connection.

Again, that was a conversation held in a hospital—a place of healing. Houses of worship are also places of healing, although of a somewhat different kind. In Mark, that’s where Jesus performed his first miracle—in a synagogue. It’s appropriate, then, that churches serve that purpose as well. So once a month, beginning in March, we will begin a ritual of healing. It will not be anything along the lines of an entire, stand-alone service, but will instead be held immediately following each Sunday service. Anyone who wants to take part may simply come to the communion rail. Privately, I will ask each individual what his or her request is. Then I will do the laying on of hands, say a prayer, and anoint that person’s forehead with oil. We’ll do that for several months—on a trial basis—and see how it goes.

Father William Saunders, a parish priest in northern Virginia, once wrote about demon possession in his regular column, “Straight Answers,” in the diocesan newsletter. He talked about it as one of several kinds of evil and finished the article with these words:

            Whether through the horror of [personal] sin or [of demon] possession [or something else], the devil’s purpose is] to shatter our belief that God loves us beyond our imagining and will even forgive any sin if we are truly sorry. [So] we must constantly turn to our Lord, and keep our eyes focused on Him….Therefore we [then] have great hope, for our Lord is [indeed] “the way, the truth and the life”… who has “overcome the world.” The love of our Lord will always conquer evil.[xvii]


[i] Sean Alfano, “Catholic Church Holds Conference to Train Priests on How to Perform Exorcisms,” New York Daily News, November 13, 2010. Also see CBS News, “Exorcism Training Offered by Catholic Bishops,” November 12, 2010.

[ii] Laurie Goodstein, “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism Is Revived,” The New York Times, November 12, 2010.

[iii] Nick Squires, “Rise of the Exorcists in Catholic Church,” The Telegraph, January 4, 2014.

[iv]ConorGaffey, “What Is Exorcism? U.S. Catholic Bishops Have Just Translated Prayers to Cast Out Demons into English for the First Time,” Newsweek, October 10, 2017. For an official description of major exorcism, see “Frequently Asked Questions about Exorcism,” in http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals, n.d.

[v]http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=683.

[vi] See aforementioned articles for the rarity of cases of demonic possession.

[vii] Mark 5:9 (and Luke 8:27).

[viii] “Legion (demons),” in Wikipedia; and “Roman Legion,” in Wikipedia.

 [ix] “Dissociative Identity Disorder,” in Wikipedia.

 [x] On this question, see, for example, “Demon Possession and Mental Illness,” in Nucleus (Autumn 1997): 13-17.

 [xi] Mark 9:17b-18a. Also see Luke 9:38-39.

 [xii] Matthew 17:15a.

 [xiii] Matthew 17:18; Mark 9:25-229; Luke 9:42. Several centuries before Jesus, the Greek physician Hippocrates held that the causes of epilepsy were natural rather than supernatural; see Don Todman, “Neurology and the Bible: Part 2—a Case of Epilepsy in the New Testament?” in Luke’s Journal (September 2008): 22-23.

 [xiv]Liubov Ben-Nun, “What Was the Mental Disease that Afflicted King Saul?” in Clinical Case Studies 2 (October 2003): 270-82; and George Stein, “The Case of King Saul: Did He Have Recurrent Unipolar depression or Bipolar Affective Disorder?—Psychiatry in the Old Testament” in The British Journall of Psychiatry 198 (February 2011): 212.

 [xv]https://www.dur.ac.uk/theology.religion/staff/profile/?id=3700.

[xvi] Christopher C.H. Cook, “Demon Possession and Mental Illness,” in Nucleus (Autumn 1997): 13-17.

[xvii] Father William Saunders, “Demonic Possession Involves Body, Not Soul” in Arlington Catholic Herald (2003).