This word conjures theatrical images of spinning heads, demonic voices, and levitating objects, but the truth behind what these chosen priests do in their daily lives is both more frightening and more touching than anything depicted in film or literature.
In the context of Roman Catholicism, exorcism is a ritual meant to drive out, or drive away, an evil spirit that has attached itself to a person or place. While the priest uses prayer from the official Rite of Exorcism as a guide, he does not have to follow it directly. Every victim’s situation is different, and so no two exorcisms look alike.
These evil spirits, according to the Catholic Church, are fallen angels. We often know them by their more popular name: demons. The word “demon” is derived from the Greek term “daio,” which means “to divide.” And with the intent of demons being to separate as many human beings from the love of God as possible, they live up to the name.
Demonic possession occurs when someone comes under the internal influence of a demon, where it can directly compromise a victim’s thought and action. Demonic oppression, which is less dangerous, occurs when that influence is external, wherein the demon creates feelings of unease and illness. The Rite of Exorcism handles both.
We all know what this looks like in the movies, but what does an exorcist actually do in the real world? What are their lives like? What drives them to pursue their profession, and do they really believe that their work helps people?
Let us descend into the realm of exorcism, and find out what it’s really like to be an exorcist of the Catholic Church.
Their Lives Aren’t Always Exciting
The first thing an exorcist will tell you is that their daily lives are nothing like what Hollywood depicts. The reality is both tamer and stranger.
Requests for exorcism have soars in recent years, and so many exorcists find themselves with a backlog of victims waiting for their help. And unlike what you might expect, the majority of these exorcisms are completely uneventful: a victim arrives, is prayed over, thanks the priest, and leaves after scheduling a follow-up appointment.
In many ways, the ministry of exorcism looks almost normal from the outside. People come in complaining of symptoms, thoughts, or actions that they cannot explain, and without any theatrics, the exorcist helps them.
This may seem tame, but it highlights a strange and frightening truth: demonic possession and oppression are far more subtle than many think. Film and literature play up the effects because art must sometimes lie to better tell the truth. And in this case, the truth is that demonic activity can look quite normal. It can quietly bring ruin as it redirects the course of an entire life, slowly and without theatrics.
Looking in from the outside, it is easy to think that possession and oppression are either not real, or not worth addressing. But exorcists know the truth: just underneath the seemingly mundane veil of their everyday lives is a battle for the souls of the victims they help.
The Exorcist is the Most Skeptical Person in the Room
But despite knowing the importance of the spiritual battle they face, a major part of an exorcist’s everyday life involves skepticism.
There is one attribute, above all others, that the Catholic Church looks for in selecting its exorcists: discernment. An exorcist must be able to quickly discern whether a victim’s problems are truly related to demonic possession or oppression, or if another route to healing should be taken.
Every exorcist knows that exorcising a person who is suffering from a natural ailment isn’t just useless—it’s downright dangerous. That’s why exorcists are trained to be the most skeptical person in the room.
This means that, before an exorcist even thinks of performing the Rite, he has the victim thoroughly evaluated by a trusted psychologist and a doctor. If the problem is natural, the priest leaves the rest to medical professionals.
If these professionals determine that something beyond the natural world is affecting the victim, the ball returns to the priest’s court. It is then—and only then—that exorcism can occur.
Many exorcists are faced with an unending number of people seeking relief from everyday issues. They blame their employment on demons, or their aching joints on evil spirits. But if an exorcist takes these cases, he gives these people false hope. This is why every exorcist exercises the utmost discernment in their everyday lives.
Sometimes, Things Get Downright Terrifying
The everyday life of an exorcist may be filled with the normal duties of a priest, and marked by fairly uneventful exorcisms, but sometimes, things get kicked up a spiritual notch.
One California exorcist, for example, began to hear a roaring sound during an exorcism. One tree outside his church’s windows began to bend, as if under a great wind. The roaring sound increased to deafening levels, and then ceased as suddenly as it began. There was no wind that day.
Other times, it is the victims, themselves, that present a danger. One supernatural symptom of possession is increased strength, and often, even the smallest victims sometimes must be restrained as they attempt to attack the priest.
Supernatural events do occur. Victims’ bone structures can change and shift beneath the skin, furniture can slide across the floor, and voices change in terrifying ways. Some victims even gain a measure of hidden knowledge about the priest that the demon will use to embarrass or traumatize him into stopping the Rite. An exorcist has to ignore these events, all of which are displays of power meant to terrify and threaten, as he works.The daily life of an exorcist is much like the classic description of an airline pilot’s: long periods of repetition punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
The Exorcist Has the Most to Lose
The victim of possession is not often a demon’s prime target—it is the people around the victim who have their lives altered in the worst of ways.
And the biggest target of all is the exorcist.
Malachi Martin, Catholic exorcist and author of “Hostage to the Devil,” wrote that exorcists often begin to “fade” as they progress through their careers. This is the result of multiple spiritual injuries inflicted by demons—injuries worse than any fleshly would could ever be.
These men—some, but not all—are drained by each demonic encounter, slowly becoming shells of their former selves. Some are hounded by a particular demon that shows up again and again in their lives, inhabiting the bodies of various victims. Still others are dogged by demonic oppression, themselves, and assaulted by the tormenting desire to commit sinful acts.
To be an exorcist is to walk a path of pain, sacrifice, and loneliness. Even among the Catholic clergy, not all believe that the ministry of exorcism is needed at all. And outside of the church, many believe that exorcism is, at best, a sad and superstitious practice, and at worst, a ploy to divert attention from the sins of the Church.
And so, facing both continual demonic attack and social stigma, these men labor on. They do so because of one overarching reason: they want to help people. They know that they may be the only thing standing between victims and the demonic in a world that only values naturalistic methods of healing.
The everyday life of an exorcist requires nearly as much courage as it does discernment.
The Greatest Healing Ministry of All
The ministry of exorcism is, above all, a ministry of healing, and this is what drives each exorcist to continue on their individual paths. There is no glory in exorcism—all credit goes to God. There is no money in it. There is no fame.
But the moment when an exorcist frees a victim from torment, the work of exorcism feels worth every agonized second. When they implore the victim to go and live a Godly life, and are able to successfully teach them how to do so, they rejoice. They’ve done God’s work.
The human soul is an immortal thing, and so to heal it is to heal a victim’s eternity. There very well may be no greater healing ministry than this which protects us from demonic attack. As much as the everyday life of an exorcist is marked by darkness, it is also marked eternally by this life-giving light.