The devil, exorcism, and faith

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

An interesting thing about Catholics is that all went through an exorcism. The sacrament of baptism is actually its basic form, a rite in which renunciation of the devil is made. This was memorably portrayed in the climactic scene of The Godfather, when Michael Corleone was attending the baptism of his nephew. Interspersed with scenes of mayhem, the priest would be seen asking of Michael: "do you reject Satan?"

Unfortunately, as the poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote: "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing mankind he didn’t exist." In fact, for a time, due to the influence of liberation theology and the attempt by some members of the Church to keep up with modernity or science, a mistaken belief spread that the devil does not exist. Or is a mere presence. Or that the world is the actual hell. All are incorrect.

There is a devil, not a mere presence, but one with a distinct identity, personality, and agenda. And the agenda is simple: to hurt you, put you in despair, separate you from God, and join the devil in hell. And there is a hell, an actual place where damned souls are condemned to spend eternity. These are articles of faith for Catholics. Simply put: if you don’t believe the devil exists you don’t believe in the Gospels. As taught to us in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 391): "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing." Or, as wryly put by Keanu Reeves in Constantine: "You should [believe in the devil]. He believes in you."

The devil, being a mere creation of God, is inferior to God. The devil’s powers and knowledge are limited, only God’s is limitless. The devil cannot read minds or perform miracles. And the devil can only do something to the extent allowed him by God. Now why God allows the devil to do what he does on mankind is a mystery. We believe, however, that it’s all ultimately for our own good. Because God is good. We just need to keep the faith (Catechism No. 395).

It’s a mistake to believe that if one is prayerful then one is immune from attacks of the devil. As Matt Baglio writes, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John Vianney, to name a few, were all attacked by the devil. One of the saddest accounts of demonic possession that Baglio recounts was of a young nun suffering since childhood.

Fr. Gabrielle Amorth, one of the Church’s chief exorcists, writes that the devil’s attack comes in two forms: ordinary temptations (which God allows to test us and, hopefully, leads to a strengthening of faith -- even Jesus was tempted) and the extraordinary activities. The latter could take the form of physical pain, possession, oppression, obsession, infestation, or diabolical dependence. Kids may find this annoying but drugs, illicit sex, and certain types of music actually increase the likelihood of demonic possession. So do fortune telling, sorcery, occult and new age practices, wearing amulets, making curses, and a deliberate life of sin.

Priests are actually the most skeptical when it comes to claims of demonic possession. Their first instinct would always be to refer the matter to psychiatrists. But once in a while, a case would come that could not be categorized as depression, psychoses, epilepsy, or anything scientifically explainable. In which case, the exorcists come in. As stated in No. 1673 of the Catechism, major exorcisms (unlike simple exorcisms that is baptism) "can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of a bishop. xxx Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness." To those unfortunately in need of an exorcism it’s important to go only to bishops or authorized priests. Needless to say, manghihilots are out. You could wind up dead. In the Philippines, a group of authorized exorcists can be found at the Manila Archdiocese.

Exorcisms normally take a few minutes and are usually quiet affairs. But there are dramatic cases and the scenes in the movie The Exorcist have happened. Exorcists have seen levitations, heard demonic voices, witnessed superhuman strength, and strange things like people vomiting nails or live frogs.

Interestingly, rather than fixating on the devil, all this actually emphasizes the importance of faith in God. The devil is cast out not because of the priest’s abilities but of God’s. Hence, Max von Sydow’s memorable movie line: "The power of Christ compels you." For sure, only God can save us if we but let Him, making ourselves a sort of anti-devil, ridding ourselves of our pride, obeying His Church’s teachings, and trusting completely in Him.