What Is Exorcism? U.S. Catholic Bishops Have Just Translated Prayers to Cast Out Demons Into English for the First Time

An Italian priest performs an exorcism on a man who has been placed in a trance, circa 1950. Keystone/Getty

Most Americans would think of the award-winning 1973 supernatural horror film when they hear about an exorcist.

But according to the Roman Catholic Church, exorcism is not the stuff of Hollywood—it's a real tool to be used in the battle against the powers of darkness. So much so that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has translated the church's exorcism ritual from Latin into English for the first time.

Exorcisms and Related Supplications is only available to bishops, although priests who perform exorcisms—as well as other clergy and theological scholars—can get a copy if they have a bishop's permission. The USCCB has also translated a separate booklet—titled Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness —that ordinary American Catholics can use to ward off demons.

The idea of exorcism has long captured the popular imagination, but few people understand what is really meant by the procedure.

What is an exorcism?

At its simplest, exorcism is a rite or prayer performed by a member of the clergy to overcome the power of demons or the devil. But the Catholic Church recognizes several different types of exorcism—and all baptized Catholics will have undergone at least one form of exorcism in their lives:

  • Simple exorcism—this is a rite performed on someone about to be baptized or initiated into the Catholic Church. It is performed to rid the person of original sin—Catholics believe that humanity is in a fallen state due to Adam and Eve disobeying God, and that all people require grace to be cleansed of their original tendency towards sin.
  • Major exorcism—this is what most people think of as an exorcism. It is performed by a bishop or a priest who has been designated an exorcist. It is directed towards "the expulsion of demons" or "the liberation from demonic possession."

Who can perform an exorcism?

According to the Catholic Church, only bishops or priests who have been commissioned by bishops as exorcists can undertake a major exorcism. Some priests are appointed as exorcists for a particular case, while some are regular exorcists who perform the rituals on a frequent basis.

How common are exorcisms?

The demand for exorcisms appears to be rising; the number of exorcists in the United States rose from 12 to 50 over the past decade, the Telegraph reported in 2016. Nevertheless, the vast majority of purported cases of exorcisms are not considered to be full demonic possessions by the Church. Father Vincent Lampert, a veteran exorcist and priest in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told the Telegraph that of every 5,000 exorcism requests he receives, only one is believed to be a case of full demonic possession.

What happens at an exorcism?

Before a possessed person is even referred to an exorcist, they should undergo a "thorough examination including medical, psychological and psychiatric testing" according to guidelines from the USCCB's Council of Divine Worship. According to Michael Cuneo's 2001 book American Exorcism, there are around a dozen psychiatrists in the United States who evaluate people claiming to be possessed on behalf of the Catholic Church.

The actual rite of exorcism involves prayers in which the priest demands that the demon(s) leave the possessed person's body. Those present are sprinkled with holy water and the priest makes the sign of the cross on the possessed person's forehead, as well as laying his hands on them.

A detail of a priest's crucifix during a lesson by Father Gabriele Nanni, an official exorcist of the Roman Catholic church, at the Regina Apolostolorum pontifical university in Rome, Italy, on February 17, 2005. ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty

According to accounts from priests, exorcisms are never usually as dramatic as they have been depicted in films and popular culture. William Friedkin—who directed The Exorcist —recounted the ritual performed by renowned exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth on an Italian woman in a 2016 article for Vanity Fair. Friedkin recounted a verbal confrontation between the demons—speaking through the possessed woman—and Amorth, and the exorcism ending with the woman thrashing, raging and cursing, before becoming calm.

Is demonic possession real?

The Catholic Church certainly thinks so. "The devil exists and we have to fight against him," said Pope Francis in an October 2014 sermon in the Vatican. At various points in the Gospels, Jesus casts out demons from people who are possessed; as such, the church says that its belief in demonic possession goes back to the very beginnings of Christianity.

Pope Francis prays in front of the statue of the Immaculate Conception at the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy, on December 8, 2013. Franco Origlia/Getty

But some believe that exorcisms are at best a misunderstood attempt to deal with psychological disorders, and at worst a con to dupe vulnerable people into parting with their money. Critics point out that psychological disorders can often produce the symptoms associated with demonic possession—schizophrenia can lead to hallucinations, paranoia and violent behavior, for example.

And while the Catholic Church prohibits charging for exorcisms, the rise of for-profit exorcism ministries and unofficial exorcists has also led some to doubt the credibility of the practice. In the United States, for example, Arizona televangelist Bob Larson offers deliverance from the devil via Skype for the price of $395.

Meanwhile, unofficial exorcisms have sometimes had tragic results: In 2005, a monk and four nuns at an Orthodox convent in Romania, bound another nun to a cross, gagged her with a towel and left her without food and water, believing she was possessed. She died of suffocation and dehydration. The Romanian Orthodox Church closed down the convent and the monk and nuns were given prison sentences after being convicted of the nun's murder.