In the 1970s Flip Wilson was a popular comedian who appeared on a variety of television shows and even hosted his own variety show. Flip Wilson developed a character called Geraldine, who had a catchphrase “The devil made me do it.” The phrase was picked up humorously by many. Maybe even on occasion it brought someone to pause and consider the reality of temptation and sin.
People of our day are fascinated by the idea of the devil and exorcisms. An exorcism is a specific form of prayer that the Catholic Church uses against the power of evil, personified by the devil. The fascination – among Catholics, Protestants, and even some non-Christians – is fueled by the representations of Hollywood, television, and now of course the ubiquitous social media.
Most Catholics would be surprised to know that they have witnessed exorcisms and, in fact, been the subject of an exorcism. In the Rite of Infant Baptism we call upon God to “cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness.” This is an exorcism.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults also incorporates exorcisms for those candidates preparing to be baptized: “We pray for our brothers and sisters who present themselves as catechumens. Keep far from them every evil spirit and all falsehood and sin …” This, too, is an exorcism.
Now it may well be that the priest or deacon celebrating these rites avoided the word exorcism. He may have done that so as to sidestep questions about the dramatic portrayals of exorcisms in movies or the over-the-top discussions in social media. This may be unfortunate for then we allow the rare and exceptional to define this form of prayer rather than what is regular and ordinary in the prayer of the Church.
What is likely made sensational for entertainment are references to what is called a major exorcism – when there is a case of genuine demonic possession, that is, when it is determined that the presence of the devil is in the body of the possessed and the devil is able to exercise dominion over that body. Historically, the Church has demonstrated great prudence and caution in making such a determination.
Yes, we can all say when we sin and fail, “The devil made me do it.” True enough. We are tempted and we sin and generally understand that we have understood our actions to be a serious matter to which we have given sufficient reflection and then offered the full consent of the will. In the case of demonic possession, genuine evil may be manifest when the person has lost the ability to really give consent.
In considering a major exorcism, the Church advances with extreme caution. A major exorcism may only be performed by a priest appointed by the bishop and with the bishop’s consent. Also, the Church would expect to fully explore medical and mental and emotional health issues. Many in the grip of addiction or living with someone in the grip of addiction feel powerless and indeed such a declaration is part of a 12-step program. But the success of such programs demonstrates other avenues to which we can turn. The Church is cautious, even in such dire cases, so as not to give the devil credit that is not due. It should be clear that a person does not make a determination about demonic possession by their own self-diagnosis or psychosis.
The major exorcism should never be seen as a magical or superstitious activity. This is the danger of media representations of an extraordinary ritual. In our day, we want quick fixes. Exorcisms are a form of prayer and must demand the good faith and genuine participation of those involved. They are not and should not be practiced like regular confession and reception of Holy Communion.
The Church does offer Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness for any who feel challenged to address the everyday sin and temptations of their lives. These include invocations to Mary and the saints. To Mary: “We fly to your protection, O Holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions but deliver us from all danger.” To St. Michael: “…defend us in battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil …. May God rebuke him we humbly pray …and by the power of God cast down to hell Satan and other evil spirits…”
Yes, the devil makes us do many things. But Jesus Christ, through his holy Church, provides sinners with abundant remedies and graces to withstand the great and small temptations of our lives. Daily prayer, works of charity and mercy, regular confession, and frequent reception of Holy Communion are a formula for resisting evil and seeking holiness.
Perhaps our first line of defense against temptation is simply the prayer that Jesus taught us, the Our Father: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the March 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic