The Practice of Exorcism in the Church Today

Interview with Father Pedro Barrajon, Rector of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum

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In the television program “Vaderretro” of the SAT 2000 channel of the Italian Episcopal Conference, a video was shown of Pope Francis praying while imposing his hands on a young man in a wheelchair. In the program some thought it was an exorcism.

The news, widely reported in newspapers, was scaled down by Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., spokesman of the Holy See Press Office, who said it was a prayer and not an exorcism (see:May 21st article.)

To reflect further on the matter, ZENIT interviewed Father Pedro Barrajon, rector of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum of Rome, where several courses on exorcism have been taught.

ZENIT: Father Barrajon, what is an exorcism?

Father Barrajon: It is a sacramental, a sacred sign that has spiritual effects through the intercession of the Church, carried out by a bishop or authorized priest on a person who is possessed by the devil.

The rite is structured with an introduction, an initial part, the reading of the Word of God, and a series of prayers that include one in which the exorcist asks the devil, in the name of Christ, to leave the person.

ZENIT: Is a particular rite necessary?

Father Barrajon: Yes, it’s a celebratory rite that begins with the sign of the cross, the proclamation of the Word of God, the Litany of the Saints, the aspersion with holy water, the profession of faith, the imposition of hands, the renunciation of Satan, the recitation of the Lord’s prayer, the blessing with the cross, the breathing into and the prayers proper to exorcism; it ends with a blessing. Some of these parts can be omitted. The rite was published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2001.

ZENIT: Can any person carry it out?

Father Barrajon: The rite can be carried out by a bishop or a priest who is authorized by his bishop.

ZENIT: What is the meaning of the stole and the holy water?

Father Barrajon: Given that it is a sacramental, the priest uses the stole for the celebration of the rite. The rite provides for the aspersion with holy water of the person being exorcised, of those present, and of the place where it is being held. The holy water recalls Baptism in which the faithful received the dignity of a child of God, was incorporated in the Church, received God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, professed the faith and renounced Satan.

ZENIT: And the cases of possession?

Father Barrajon: Possession is the devil taking hold of the body of a person. There isn’t necessarily an influence on the soul. To understand this is to imagine just one apartment that is lived in by the usual tenant and another individual who comes in to cause unease and harm. When there are only troubles but not possession as such there is talk of vexation. It is important that the priest, before carrying out an exorcism, have the moral certainty that the ceremony is necessary, namely, that it is not an illness of a psychological type, such as: paranoia, schizophrenia, hysteria, etc. Through prayer and with the advice of prudent and holy men, [the priest] must be convinced that it is a real case of possession.

ZENIT: How can one distinguish between pathology and a case of possession?

Father Barrajon: The exorcist must pray and ask for advice from holy, prudent and well-formed persons and, if such is the case, of competent experts, such as psychologists and psychiatrists with a basic Christian anthropology or other types of experts that discard the possibility that it is an illness that can be treated with natural means.

ZENIT: What difference is there between an exorcism and a prayer of deliverance?

Father Barrajon: The prayer of deliverance is said for persons who suffer troubles or vexations but not at the level of possession. In these cases the prayer of deliverance would be enough, asking the Lord to free the person from the influence of the Evil One. For these prayers the explicit permission of the bishop isn’t required.

ZENIT: Is the devil a representation of evil, a person, or a being?

Father Barrajon: He is a real being with a superior intelligence; a pure spirit perverted by his sin of pride with which he rebelled against God and [now] seeks evil for man. He is not a metaphorical being, a sort of symbol of evil. However, it’s difficult to come to an understanding of his nature precisely because of the deficiency of goodness and truth that structure his being.

ZENIT: Pope Francis has spoken several times about the devil. How should this be understood?

Father Barrajon: I think that a person as spiritual as Pope Francis, very united to God, lover of prayer, of Christian mysticism and ascetics in daily life, perceives also the action of the devil in persons, in the world and within the Church herself. I have been told that he had exorcist friends in Argentina, but I don’t have direct confirmation of this.

ZENIT: How do exorcists work today?

Father Barrajon: Exorcists are priests who have the ministerial assignment from their bishop to celebrate this sacramental for the good of the faithful. Generally they work in a specific church and are usually helped by other spiritual persons who pray with him, subdue the person if necessary during the exorcism, as there could be violent manifestations, and accompany them in this service of charity for someone suffering these evils. There can be specific times, namely, an appointment with [the priest] for attention to the different cases.

ZENIT: When there is an exorcism, do strange things happen as in the movies on the subject?

Father Barrajon: During the exorcism, the voice, the look the attitude of the person towards others can change; he can also acquire special physical strength. But some films exaggerate the manifestations of normal exorcisms adding details of greater drama and intensity.

ZENIT: Have you ever taken part in an exorcism?

Father Barrajon: I have taken part in some exorcisms and in the theological-pastoral courses that we have for priests in our Athenaeum on this subject, as speaker on theological questions. I was able to write a very simple little work on the Angels and demons in the plan of salvation. However, my interest is more theological than the pastoral practice of exorcism.

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Sergio Mora

Buenos Aires, Argentina Estudios de periodismo en el Istituto Superiore di Comunicazione de Roma y examen superior de italiano para extranjeros en el Instituto Dante Alighieri de Roma. Periodista profesional de la Associazione Stampa Estera en Italia, y publicista de la Orden de periodistas de Italia. Fue corresponsal adjunto del diario español El País de 2000 a 2004, colaborador de los programas en español de la BBC y de Radio Vaticano. Fue director del mensual Expreso Latino, realizó 41 programas en Sky con Babel TV. Actualmente además de ser redactor de ZENIT colabora con diversos medios latinoamericanos.

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