The Catholic Church is facing a shortage of qualified exorcists. There simply aren’t enough clergymen to handle the avalanche of requests from people who believe that they are possessed. So for the first time (Feb. 2005), the Vatican has sanctioned a course for priests and bishops dedicated to teaching exorcism.
What is exorcism? It’s the use of prayer to rid a person of demonic spirits. It has its roots in early Christianity but fell out of favor after the Age of Enlightenment. Advances in science and technology made exorcism seem like primitive magic.
There has been a huge revival of interest in exorcism over the last two decades. A tribute to the power of Hollywood movies, pulp novels, and the late Pope John Paul’s belief, that Satan is a presence in daily life and must be battled.
How can you tell if a person is a candidate for exorcism? The Rev. Gabriel Nanni, an exorcist who taught the recent course at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, said that authentic demonic possession “must include an utter revulsion to holy symbols such as crucifixes or baptismal oil.” For appropriate candidates, I have no problem with exorcism at all. For most others who are “possessed,” it’s invariably the result of some physical or psychological reason that requires seeing a doctor.
As a psychiatrist, I don’t talk about “demonic possession.” In our vernacular, we call it “the incorporation of a negative introject.” Lots of people have been terribly abused, and/or experienced unspeakably tragic events; I try to help those people move beyond their fear, rage, and internalized demons. I use symbols, myths, interpretation, and medications.
From my work in Indian Country, I learned to add other elements to my therapeutic repertoire: prayer, singing, ceremonies, prescribing ordeals, and using awesomely powerful, psychoactive drugs. Psychotherapy is just another form of sanctioned exorcism; I believe that any power psychotherapists can bring to bear to help people mobilize their own power and promote resilience is therapeutic.