ASK FATHER: Why do people today freak out so much over the idea of exorcisms?

From a reader….


I saw the really good posts that Father Tim Finigan and Father John Hunwicke put on their blogs and the comments.  Why, Father Z, do you think people today freak out so much over the idea of exorcisms?   It’s like their brains shut down.

You ask a good question.

I’ll open with this.

It is obvious to me that performing exorcisms should be one of the most normal and natural things that priests do.  We are constantly at war with the world, the flesh and the Devil.   Demons are relentless.   Priests aren’t ordained to be “nice guys” or to be “facilitators” or “administrators”.  Priests are ordained, first and foremost, to offer the Sacrifice of Calvary and administer the sacraments.  Priests are ordained to forgive sins.  Priests are ordained to intercede in prayer.  Priests are ordained to bless and to reconcile, to purify and to protect from spiritual harm.  Yes, priests are also ordained to teach and to govern or administer the goods of the Church.  Fine.  BUT… others can do that too, whereas only priests can consecrate and bless and exorcise as priests, as alter Christus.

So, I say again, it seems to me the most normal of activities for priests to exorcise and to bless people, places and things.  It is the common and ordinary work of the common, ordinary priest and it shouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

Except for today, a time infected with the eroding virus of modernist immanentism, the tendency to reduce the supernatural to the natural.

This modernist, immanentist prevailing tendency, accounts for part of the negative reactions of some to the concept of exorcism.

The post-Conciliar Church pretty much abandoned the use of our rites and blessings which require exorcisms before blessings, consecrations or sacraments are administered.   Slowly but surely – because we are our rites – the loss of familiarity with the two-stage process of sanctifying has lead to fear.   And this fear is rooted in the fact that such rites bring us into contact with, remind us of the reality of, mystery, the mystery with power to transform.  That’s, ultimately, what the traditional rites were designed and polished to accomplish: bring people into transformative contact with God, who is mystery.   And the purpose of that, ultimately, is to prepare us for death, to help us deal with fear of death.

That little ramble is a preamble to more.

The part about exorcism before blessings, etc. needs more electrons.   Here are a few examples of the pattern of purification before sanctification that was so much a part of the Roman way of offering sacred worship to God.

Nota bene: To get this at all, you must first believe that the Enemy, the Devil, exists, is a personal being, legion, malicious and relentless in trying to keep souls from God and the bliss of heaven.  The diabolical enemy, demons, fallen angels, can attach themselves to places, things and people because they are summoned explicitly or because certain sins summoned them and then “permitted”, in a kind of legalistic sense, them to attach.   The Lord Himself talks about the “Prince of this world” (John 12:12; 14:30; 16:11), who is the Devil and the Enemy of the soul.   Since the fall of our First Parents, the Enemy dominates the created cosmos.  Exorcism breaks the hold of the enemy.   Blessings and consecrations then rededicate the freed, place, person, or thing to the King.

This isn’t pretend.  This is real.

In the traditional rite of baptism, the one to be baptized is, before anything else, exorcized.  The Enemy is commanded to depart from the person.   Salt which has been exorcised and then blessed is placed in the person’s mouth.  There is an explicit exorcism that must be in Latin.  There is another exorcism upon entrance to the baptistry.  After the renunciation of Satan, then and only then is the one to be baptized anointed with Oil of Catechumens.  Actually baptism follows after another interrogation.  The whole rite shows the Church’s understanding of how the Enemy exercises a domination over the material cosmos and has a kind of claim on it because of the Fall.

I mentioned the exorcism and blessing of salt.  Many things, before they are blessed, are first to be exorcized.   Holy Water is a good example.   In the traditional rite, salt is exorcized and then blessed, then water is exorcized and then blessed.  They are combined with a Trinitarian form and the solution blessed again.   In the exorcism the priest addresses the salt and the water as if they are sentient creatures: I exorcize you, O creature of salt… creature of water….   This was standard practice in all sacristies on Sundays before the principle Mass when there was to be an Asperges or Vidi Aquam.   Take away these rites, and priests themselves slowly but surely start to forget about the Enemy and the constant spiritual warfare being waged for our souls, the reason why we have sacramentals.   St. Benedict medals, by the way, are also exorcized and addressed as “you”.

In the rite of consecration of a church, again there are exorcisms before blessings.  Outside the church the bishop exorcizes on three levels, each with a procession around the building, twice counter-clockwise and once clockwise, then entering the church the process is repeated.  After the exorcisms come the blessings of the floor and walls and eventually the altar.   The exorcisms are performed before the people are admitted to the church.   An echo of this could be found in the Offertory rite at Holy Mass in the traditional form.  The incense is blessed with a special blessing that invokes the one who bound Satan with the chain, St. Michael the Archangel and all of his elect.   Then the thurible is swung over the host and chalice, twice counter-clockwise and once clockwise, before the altar is incensed on three levels, above to the back, to sides and the front and beneath.  That blessing and that process, that echoes the tearing of things away from the Enemy and their consecration, was eliminated from the Novus Ordo.

Speaking of the traditional Holy Mass, before the Gospel, the priest or deacon says two prayers.  The first prayer begs for the cleansing of the lips and heart invoking the image of the angel who brought the burning coal to Isaiah’s mouth before he was given the prophetic office.  After that first prayer, then the second prayer, which was kept in the Novus Ordo, is said.  It includes the request for the blessing.   First, purification.  Then, blessing.  If these things are eliminated from the Mass, over time priests simply are unaware not just of the details of the rites, but the concepts behind them.  Their identity is eroded or never enriched with them in the first place.  That, in itself, is reason enough for every single seminarian to be taught how to say the Traditional Latin Mass.

One of the reasons why, in the confessional, you ask the priest for his blessing before making your confession is to bind the Enemy so that he or they won’t attack and distract from your making a good and complete confession.   This is something confessors should know and do: quietly say a minor exorcism of some kind as penitents enter and bless them as they begin.

Moving into our contemporary context, imagine a clergy and the vast majority of lay people who still think about their Catholic Faith at all, who have been systematically and purposely deprived of catechesis about and exposure through ritual to concepts like exorcisms.

Then, all of a sudden, they hear about such things.

There could be a little bit of embarrassed titillation or perhaps unaccountable fear, either of the unfamiliar (maybe with some guilt because they know they ought to know about it) or else because oppressing demons are prompting their worst impulses to shun the holy.   The more violent reactions are probably due to the latter: demonic influence.

A couple more things about exorcisms.  Here is an interesting fact.

Have you ever been to Rome?   If you have been, surely you visited St. Peter’s Basilica and have walked in the Square.   In the center of the piazza is a mighty obelisk.  It had once been the spina or center point of the Circus of Gaius Caligula, where Peter was martyred.  In the time of Sixtus V it was moved to the center of the piazza as part of a project both to rearrange the medieval and ancient pathways for the sake of traffic, city planning, but also to reclaim ancient pagan civic objects away from the demons attached to them and turn them over to God.  Thus at important points in his city plan he erected ancient columns with statues of saints, etc.   The St. Peter’s obelisk got special treatment.  Sixtus himself exorcised it, carved a cross into it, went around it and threw holy water on it to bless it and put a bronze cap with a Cross on the top that contains a fragment of the Cross, the bronze reminiscent of the brazen serpent in the wilderness.  On the base supporting the obelisk, on the sides, left and right as you face it and the basilica, are inscriptions about who put it there, etc. On the front and back, however, there are Latin inscriptions taken from the … wait for it… rite of exorcism.   Any priest who has ever recited Chapter 3 of Title XI of the Rituale Romanum, known sometimes as the “longer St. Michael prayer”, instantly recognizes the lines.


Behold the Cross of the Lord – Let the Enemy flee – The Lion of the Tribe of Judah is victorious.

The obelisk, once a pagan thing and an object of demons, stands now like a exorcising sentinel before the basilica where the tomb of the Apostle is, where countless pilgrims come. And if you have spent time in Rome, especially around St. Peter’s, you see a lot of strange things happen as some people approach that obelisk.

Frankly, the exorcism of the obelisk should be renewed now that a ritual object of a demonic idol cult was placed on the altar over the bones of Peter. But I digress.

Speaking of Title XI Chapter 3 of the Roman Ritual, a couple things.  First, it is possible for priests to recite this privately.  It is more efficacious with the permission of the bishop, when it can also be recited publicly.   If priests want recordings of the Latin, see HERE.

It is often explained that while Chapter 2 is the full, big, exorcism rite for people, Chapter 3 is more about places and things.  While that is true, Chapter 3 also concerns people.  There are references to people within the rite.  They are right there in black and white.  Moreover, those references are surely in there because there were sects doing the Devil’s work against the Church in the political sphere.

In any event, it seems to me that people “freak out” at the idea that priests might be doing exorcisms because they fear what they – victims of the prevailing immanentism – don’t understand, they feel guilt because they know they should understand it and believe it (and don’t), and because they are being prompted by demons who have got their claws into them.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Clinton R. says:

    “The post-Conciliar Church pretty much abandoned the use of our rites and blessings which require exorcisms before blessings, consecrations or sacraments are administered.” ” That blessing and that process, that echoes the tearing of things away from the Enemy and their consecration, was eliminated from the Novus Ordo.”

    These two quotes of Father’s illustrate how much damage the Evil One’s influence has wrought upon the Church’s battle against him and his fallen angels. Let us pray for St. Michael’s help in our spiritual battle. May Our Lord fill priests and seminarians with the zeal to learn the Latin Mass and use the traditional rites for the salvation of souls. +JMJ+

  2. Chuck4247 says:

    Stupid Question:
    Why would there be a difference in the effectiveness of a prayer (specifically of exorcism) if it is said privately versus publicly?

  3. RobinDeLage says:


    The effectiveness is increased as the laity can offer their own prayers alongside the priest. Thus increasing the torment on the demon so that it more readily leave.

  4. Chuck4247 says:

    I thought that Exorcism was one of those “either it works, or it doesn’t” propositions, and if the exorcist has the authority and doesn’t screw up, the demon leaves, otherwise, it won’t. The laity, by definition, don’t have such authority, so I am confused why such prayers would have impact on an exorcism.

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  6. DavidJ says:

    Truthfully, that’s one of those things that I’ve wondered about as well, Chuck. If the exorcist is bringing the Church’s authority to bear, it shouldn’t be a repeat thing, right? How would this differ from a priest exercising other actions, like the sacraments? And yes, I realize exorcism isn’t a sacrament, and I also realize that Jesus even said some demons require “prayer and fasting.”

  7. ChesterFrank says:

    I don’t freak out over exorcisms, I applaud their use. They are extremely important. I have often wondered why priests don’t make more use of them. I suspect Peter Blatty’s book/movie might have something to do with it. IMHO, priest s should have educated people on the role of exorcism in the Church. Of that is what you just did, your post would make a wonderful addition to any church bulletin. One thing I have noticed that has disappeared from church before during or after mass is incense and holy water. The church is never incensed before mass, and holy water never sprinkled. Isn’t that one of your exorcism’s, and something to be done in preparation for Mass? Is the blessing of homes on the Epiphany an exorcism? This is one of your best posts, I hope it goes viral.

  8. We are not going to get into the mechanics of exorcisms here.

  9. GregB says:

    As you say the big problem is with the supernatural vertical dimension that links the Church to God. The horizontal natural dimension has been overemphasized. A purely horizontal Church is a worldly Church. Worldliness was at the heart of Christ’s Temptations in the Wilderness. In the Nicene Creed we say: “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” The vertical supernatural dimension is the invisible realm, the horizontal natural dimension is the visible realm. The modernist wing’s vertical dimension is pretty much spiritually flatline. They badly need a refresher course in Christ’s Temptations in the Wilderness and the Nicene Creed.

  10. KateriK says:

    Dear Father,
    As always, you have a gift to be able to explain the the traditions of Holy Mother Church quite well. Thank you for taking the time to plot out the importance of why exorcisms take place before receiving the Sacraments and also before blessings. All these things make sense when one contemplates them. The story about the obelisk at St. Peter’s is fascinating.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    ChesterFrank — I think you’ve got the order of events wrong. Peter Blatty’s book and the movie were basically a protest against the de-supernaturalization of the Church, and about the loss of practices such as greater exorcisms. I suppose that some priests ordained afterwards might be “embarrassed” by the pop culture associations, but the deliberate disuse and deliberate lack of teaching came first.

    It’s pretty common for people to feel anger about this stuff that has been “hidden.” First off, you ridicule this strange new concept, and you feel anger that someone would dare to claim this stuff is Catholic. Because if it had been true, you would have been told this important stuff, so it must be a lie! How dare these people make up this stuff!

    But then you realize that important stuff was left out, by people you trusted to teach you the faith, and that you were meant to be kept stupid, fat, happy, and endangered. So you feel angry again. How dare they not teach you this stuff! And also, how dare they set you up to say nasty things about people telling you the actual full truth!

  12. GregB says:

    Suburbanbanshee you make an excellent point. One of the major problems with modernism is its ever shape shifting to follow cultural trends. The god that the modernists claim to represent can’t make up his mind. What is true on Sunday is false on Monday, lather, rinse, repeat. It is a church of the weathervane. Under these circumstances how can they possibly engage in honest evangelism? It ends up producing an evangelism that looks more like a high-pressure boiler-room telemarketing operation. Tell them anything to close the sale and charge the credit card.

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