Interview With The Exorcist

Last week, Pope John Paul II reportedly interrupted a blessing at the Vatican to help perform an exorcism on a hysterical 19 year-old Italian teenager, according to accounts in the Italian newspaper, "Il Messaggero." This week, "The Exorcist" returns to movie theaters after 27 years. Coincidence? To help us decide, we contacted the Rev. James LeBar, a Catholic priest from Hyde Park, New York who regularly performs exorcisms. NEWSWEEK's Joshua Phillips spoke with him about last week's events in Rome, the ancient ritual's renaissance in the United States--and if he plans to see the movie again.

So what happened in Rome? Was there really an exorcism in the Vatican performed by the Pope?
According to the report I got from Rome, the woman had been having an exorcism by Father Gabrielle Amorth [the Pope's chief exorcist] either the day before or the morning before. And then she went into the audience, for whatever reason, and when the Pope was giving the final blessing, that apparently it was too much for the demons and they erupted. She displayed great strength and spoke in languages that she wasn't studying. Afterward, the Pope brought her into another room. He spent about half an hour with her, praying, and I'm sure he told his secretary, "Get me the exorcist book, quick!" No one told me that, so I'm not 100 percent sure it's true. The next day, one of the bishops and Father Amorth continued the exorcism on the young lady.

Were they able to complete the exorcism?
No, they worked on her until she got calm and subdued. They subdued the demons for the time being. Exorcism is a process; it doesn't work just in one moment here and there. It sometimes takes a long time. The Pope was part of the process.

What will happen to the girl?
I imagine she'll have her exorcisms until the demon is driven out. Some cases take a very long time. Demons are very stubborn.

Did the Pope fail?
No. But the process is not complete and the devil didn't fully leave. He was subdued enough to let the person go to sleep.

Why wasn't the Pope able to drive out the demons, more so than any other priest?
Exorcism often times takes the services of a number of priests over a number of days.

Is this typical? In the past, have other Popes received people for exorcisms?
I can't answer that question because I don't know. Pope Paul VI spoke a great deal about exorcism, but I have never heard of any record of what he did. Most of the records of things like this are kept in the diocese or chanceries. If an exorcism doesn't happen outside of a public situation, most people wouldn't know about them.

Has the application of exorcisms changed over the time?
Basically, no. The ritual dates back to the 14th century. The last serious revision was done in 1614. We did some minor revisions in 1962 and the English language was allowed to be used at that time.

How many exorcisms are performed each year in the United States?
The only thing I can tell you is that we in New York do 25 per year. One year we had 60, but other years average about 25.

There's been a revival, right? When did that begin?
There have always been exorcisms. The '70s and '80s were kind of a low point. But they began to pick up again towards the end of the '80s.

How many have you worked on personally?
I've done about 40 now.

Have you seen anything like Linda Blair's Regan in "The Exorcist?"
Much of what's in there, I've seen. I've never seen any high levitation, though. I've never seen any spitting up of material.

What's the most extreme case you've ever seen?
I've seen the great strength. I've heard the talking in different languages. I've heard the hatred in the Devil's voice.

How can you tell is someone's possessed instead of just going through psychotic episode?
It just sort of comes to you by experience. There's not any strict form or regular thing that happens. Sometimes a person speaks a lot of things in a strange language. Other times they may be struggling and have to be restrained. Everyone's different.

But how does one know that you've got a bona fide case of possession as opposed to simply a severe case of mental illness?
Before we do an exorcism we do a complete psychological, psychiatric evaluation.

What would happen if you did an exorcism when it wasn't warranted?
If a person were truly mentally ill, and you tried an exorcism, you could hurt them, actually.

How so?
Because you're messing with their mind. If they're mentally ill, they're seeing things differently than we are.

Do you have to get church approval before doing one?
In the Catholic Church, only a priest can do an exorcism, and he needs the permission of a Bishop.

Is it true that Protestants do more exorcisms than Catholics?
You have some of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and what I would call splinter churches doing exorcisms right and left. So my answer to that is probably yes, because they don't take time to determine if someone really needs it.

Does possession happen to older people as well?
A person can need an exorcism who's five years old, or 75 years old, if the devil chooses to move in on them.

How long does the process last?
It varies from case to case. But the majority are probably two- or three-day sessions, and then they're generally okay. But I have some that I've gone back four or five times on.

How does one know when a demon has been purged?
They certainly change in their personality, in the things that they can do. And they change in their orientation toward God.

How do you know that the demon's been extinguished as opposed to simply subdued?
In an exorcism, we command the devil, in the name of Jesus, to tell us his name and the date and hour of his departure. It's a sign that he's leaving or has left.

Ever seen a repossession?
That can happen, too, if a person is delivered from the hands of the devil and refuses to lead back into a good life or lapses back into a bad life. The devil could move right in again.

Does someone's actions determine whether they're more susceptible to being possessed?
Sure, if a person is alienated from God. If they turn to evil and lives of crime and sin, they're much more liable to have the devil possess them than someone who is trying to be very good and spiritual.

You saw "The Exorcist" many years ago. What do you think of it when you first saw it?
It was positively awesome seeing the depth that the devil would go to get somebody. And it was positively awesome to see the power that God gives the priest to do the exorcism.

Are you going to see the new, uncut version?
Oh yes.