Murder, grotesque depictions of decaying flesh, green smoke curling from a possessed individual—unnatural phenomena seemingly caused by demonic influence. These are just some of the things people surmise about when thinking about exorcisms. However, anticlimactic as it may be, these scenes—typically, products of movies and the media—could not be farther from the truth.
Much of the general public’s perception stems from woefully inaccurate depictions on social media, with exaggerated and often misleading portrayals commonly shown in horror movies. But despite its seemingly terrifying nature, the practice is a lot more nuanced and intricate, and exorcists themselves are some of the most pious individuals in the Catholic faith. Ultimately, the primary goal of the Ministry of Exorcism is founded on healing and the spiritual liberation of the mind and soul.
The recent groundbreaking of the Saint Michael Center for Spiritual Liberation and Exorcism in Makati City–hailed by Church leaders as the first of its kind in Asia–is a crucial feat, given that as many as 10 suspected cases of possessions are reported each day, at least in the Archdiocese of Manila. However, with this greater accessibility comes the need to shed further light on the practice and to dismantle the many prevailing misconceptions surrounding it.
Like most formal practices, an exorcist is required to undergo proper training and exposure before they are allowed to perform exorcisms. For Fr. Ian Gabinete from the Holy Infant Jesus Parish in Parañaque, this came in the form of an apprenticeship. “Basically, it involved a direct participation [and education] in the Ministry of Exorcism,” he shares. As a trainee, Gabinete would often accompany an experienced exorcist while performing the rites, and would be asked to lead minor exorcism prayers.
When the time comes for them to perform an exorcism, a step-by-step procedure is observed. “Usually, we begin [with] the Prayer to take Authority, or the Prayer for Protection,” Gabinete shares. “Then, we proceed with a particular prayer [that is] needed for [the] situation.” Exorcists also make use of items such as holy water, the crucifix, prayer books, exorcized salt and oils, as well as relics of saints.
Gabinete explains that there are four types of demonic influences on human beings. The first and least severe case is known as an infestation, instances where demonic entities possess and are able to manipulate objects or places. “If people start seeing things…if your cups and your saucers start flying around the house, and the doors open by themselves, the lights are turned off by themselves…this is a case of a house infestation,” he shares.
The next case is oppression–a type of demonic influence that causes unexplained illnesses, or brings about misfortune to an individual. Above that is obsession, which is second only to possession in terms of severity. What sets this apart from possession is that the demon does not yet take control of a person from within. Gabinete adds that cases of obsession can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts, and describes this as the doorway to possession–the most dangerous type of demonic influence.
Moreover, Diocese of Imus Chief Exorcist Fr. Mark Reyes explains that exorcisms can be minor or major, depending on the severity of a case. He shares that minor exorcisms can be performed by any priest, typically on less severe cases like infestations, and that major exorcisms are performed on the more dangerous cases, like possession, and can only be performed by an exorcist.
For such cases, it is not uncommon for victims to display strange and inexplicable tendencies, with some suddenly gaining the ability to speak foreign languages like Latin. Others also gain unusual levels of physical strength. Gabinete recalls a particular case where he and his team were attempting to perform an exorcism on a rather petite woman. “We were assisted by two men, plus us two priests…we could not pin her down; she had that unusual strength,” he shares, adding that such tendencies are indicative of a demonic possession.
However, Gabinete cautions that not all cases are actually a result of demonic influence—a more mundane explanation is often likely. “We always remind people to not automatically assume that their house is haunted, [maybe] it is just a matter of fixing their electrical wiring, or that they just need to put some oil [on] door hinges,” he shares. The same could be said for possessions in human beings; what may appear to be a demonic possession could simply be manifestations of a deeper psychological issue. “Usually, we do not immediately proceed with the formal exorcism because situations like that need proper evaluation first,” he furthers.
Thus, exorcists go through a lengthy process of learning about the patient and their lives to determine whether or not a demonic influence is likely. It’s common for them to refer their patients to psychiatrists first for them to have a psychological assessment. When no underlying psychological issue is determined, it is only then that they can begin the formal exorcism.
Matters of faith
By its very nature, the practice of exorcism invites a myriad of questions to any observer both within and outside the Catholic faith. Its supernatural character and human-to-spirit exchanges pose no simple explanation to spectators, welcoming much cynicism from the community.
Both priests are all too familiar with the groundswell of unbelief regarding the existence of evil spirits. They even admit that they were once skeptical about the demonic world. “I consider myself as a very rational person,” Gabinete shares, declaring that he would often dismiss otherworldly phenomena as mere sensationalized occurrences in the natural realm. “So I would always find explanations every time that I would see unusual things.” It was when he stepped into the Ministry of Exorcism when he realized that everything was not as it seems.
To Reyes, the core issue lies in how people conceive of evil and its consequences. “[You see how] the consequences of sin have this great impact on the lives of people…[but] the faith will always be more powerful than evil,” he discusses. In Gabinete’s perspective, the remedy is straightforward: when one grows in understanding of the faith he professes, the depth of the fallen world becomes intuitive. “If I believe in God, why should I not believe in the reality of the enemies of God?” he implores.
Amid all the intricacies found in exorcism, Reyes and Gabinete both find meaning in the ministry because of how it has respectively impacted their own faiths. “For most of us, [Catholicism] is just a matter of blurting out the words…it’s as if it’s all doctrine,” shares the former, noting how Catholicism remains “head-level” for many believers. “[But the ministry has] taught me that the faith is alive,” Reyes adds.
Meanwhile, Gabinete brings to light the reconciliations his exorcisms have brought to the once-possessed. “[My former clients] would approach us and tell us how we helped in restoring their relationship with God,” he fondly reminisces.
Indeed, exorcism is a conduit for priests to intimately empathize with the plight of their parishioners and to be an instrument to their recovery–with many steps removed from the typical podium-to-pew interaction. “I saw how painful [possession] was for [one of my clients],” Gabinete reveals. “So I realized that exorcism is not just the ministry that liberates people from demonic influence…This ministry is really the ministry of healing.”
Writhing one’s way through the labyrinth of preconceived notions surrounding exorcism is truly an insurmountable task. Yet, for all of exorcism’s complexity, it serves as a hallowed invitation for renewal among the most afflicted souls; in exorcism, no victim is too far gone to be mended whole. Perhaps it is this compassion that drives exorcism to boldly bridge the human and the divine: the promise of hope for the last, the least, and the lost.