We live in a skeptical age, one which finds the very idea of personified evil spirits to be a superstitious remnant of the Middle Ages. Those people—and religious traditions—who believe in the existence of the devil and demons are often ridiculed as being out-of-touch with modern times. The contemporary Western mentality is that evil is merely the result of an inadequate social environment or due to purely psychological factors, causes which can be remedied with a social program or medication. In this view, the only “exorcisms” necessary are those which rid our society of poor social conditions, ignorance, or psychopathology. Many Christians—among them not a few Catholics—have succumbed to this mentality as well. They are formed more by the culture in which we live than by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Church.
Yet even a cursory reading of the Gospels gives us many explicit references to the reality of demons and demonic possession. Indeed, we can see that deliverance from evil spirits played a central role in Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus himself cited these healing acts as proof that he was the Messiah (Matthew 2:23, 28; Luke 11:20). Our Lord cast out demons by “the finger of God” (Matthew 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 19), by his own divine authority. Jesus commanded the demons to depart and they obeyed (Matthew 8:16; Mark 9:24). The ministry of Jesus was essentially one of reconciliation and healing, the salvation of souls. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus healing people’s physical and spiritual illnesses, and among these people were those possessed by evil spirits. Exorcism of evil spirits clearly was an act of healing.
This same ministry of exorcism and healing Jesus handed on to his apostles, granting them the authority to cast out demons in his name from the very beginning of their ministry (Matthew 10:1, 8; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1, 10:17). Furthermore, when the apostles asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them the powerful words of the Our Father, including its concluding line “deliver us from evil.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, these words do not merely refer to some abstract notion of evil or sin; they refer to evil personified in malevolent spirits, particularly in Satan, “the Evil One” (see CCC 251-254). While this generally refers to the devil’s ordinary temptations, it also encompasses the notion of demonic possession and oppression.
When needed, the Church continues to exercise this ministry of Jesus, carefully discerning when true possession is present and permitting those priests who have been trained in the rite of exorcism and with the permission of their bishop to perform it. In the cases of oppression by evil spirits or curses, a renouncement of the evil spirit or a breaking of the curse through the sacrament of penance and deliverance prayer brings about healing.
In the fascinating, easy-to-read book, Interview with an Exorcist: the Devil, Demonic Passion, and the Path to Deliverance, exorcist Father Jose Antonio Fortea brings to light crucial aspects of this important ministry. He addresses 110 practical questions about the devil, demonic possession, and the path to deliverance. In the process, he provides bishops, priests, and laity alike with sound guidelines for determining the influence of evil spirits and important spiritual questions it raises. Catholics need to learn to recognize the reality of evil, evil spirits, and the Evil One. In this way they may learn to discern in the spiritual life between good and evil, between the Truth—Jesus Christ, and the Father of Lies—Satan.
I do however, have an important warning for you. Although all Catholics should have a basic understanding of the reality of evil, we should also avoid being overly preoccupied with the topic of the devil. The Evil One is capable of using such a fascination as a means to ensnare us—with despair, fear, or discouragement. We need not fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). In the call to holiness—intimacy with the three divine persons of the Trinity—we are encouraged to keep our focus always on the love that Jesus Christ has for us.
As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus’ deepest desire for every human person is that they come to know the love of the Father for them and live in the heart of the Trinity. St. Ignatius of Loyola calls upon us to know Satan as “the enemy of human nature.” He asks us to pray and to discover places in our hearts where we hold on to unbelief or are weak in faith. It is here that the Father of Lies will tell us that we are not the beloved of the Father of Jesus, our Abba. Indeed, if we attend humbly to receiving the love of the Father when we sense the depth of our human frailty and powerlessness, we can taste anew St. Paul’s experience of God’s healing love and power making us strong (see 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Hebrews 11:34).
Additionally, when tempted, we should not despair or become discouraged, for Jesus has experienced the very same (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus Christ has won the victory over sin, evil, and death through his passion, death, and resurrection. By his grace, we can recognize and reject Satan and his empty promises. The Lord in his tender mercy will unbind any shackles of evil and sin we bring to him. I pray that you will come to know the freedom that Jesus Christ desires for you and has bestowed on you. May all of us “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
This article was originally published as the forward to Interview with an Exorcist by Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea.