That there is a world of Demons is a teaching of revealed religion which is perfectly clear to all who know Sacred Scripture and respect and accept its word as inspired of God. It is part of the whole Christian-Judaeo heritage. There are some who hold that even if revelation were not so absolute, an inference of the existence of evil spirits can be drawn from the magnitude of evil in the world. They say that human malice and depravity even at its worst is not sufficient to account for it, and it must be concluded that the devil is a real person and that his sway is tremendous. As Franqois Mauriac writes in his life of Saint Margaret of Cortona: “Evil is Someone, Someone who is multiple and whose name is legion. . . . It is one thing to be in the realm of the Demons, as we all are when we have lost the state of grace, and quite another to be held and surrounded, literally possessed by him.”
One gets the impression that the teaching about the devil’s existence is not a particularly popular one in our time. C. S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters says something to the effect that if the little inexperienced novice devils, about to start out on their work of seducing men, can convince men that the devil does not exist, then half the battle is already won.
The first book of the Holy Bible recounts the seduction of Adam and Eve by the Prince of Darkness; but it is to the last book that we must go for his origin. “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels had to fight the dragon; the dragon fought, and so did his angels. But they were defeated, and a place was no longer found for them in heaven. That huge dragon, the ancient serpent, was hurled down, he who is called the devil and Satan, he who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled down to death, and his angels were hurled down with him.” (Apoc 12.7-9)
Christ our Lord overcame Satan on the cross, and ever since the latter’s empire is shaken. Man is delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Son. Yet the devil is not completely vanquished or trodden underfoot once for all, and the warfare against him is carried out by Christ and His Church until the end of time. Therefore, Saint Paul is prompted to admonish us: “Put on all the armor that God has forged, that you may be able to make a stand against the devil’s cunning tricks. Our wrestling is not against weak human nature, but against the Principalities and the Powers, against those that rule the world of darkness, the wicked spirits that belong to an order higher than ours. . . . With all this take up the shield of faith, with which you will be enabled to put out all the flaming arrows of the wicked enemy.” (Eph 6.12-16)
Against these unclean spirits the Church uses as her weapons prayers, blessings, holy water, and other sacramentals to combat the ordinary power that the former wield over men. But apart from this ordinary and general power that Providence allows Satan there is also a special and terrible Satanic influence called possession – the domination by the Demon over man’s bodily organs and his lower spiritual faculties. In later Christian times the term obsession is used instead of possession, the former connoting a lesser kind of Demonic disturbance. That Christ reckoned with this Satanic power in the same way that the Church has throughout her centuries is evident from the New Testament; see for example Mt 9.32-34, Lk 8.2, Mk 9.13 if.
To be possessed can mean that Satan has gained mastery over the will so devastatingly that sinfulness passes beyond ordinary depravity in the world, and its cause must be sought in a power above the order of nature. To be possessed can mean that Satan has beclouded the intellect, so that the light of faith cannot illuminate it. To be possessed can mean that Satan has befuddled a person’s reason; in fact, simple and superstitious folk have wrongly made lunacy synonymous with diabolical infestation. In some instances of possession recounted in the New Testament, molestation by the devil is manifested in various disturbances of the human body itself, where he has gained control over a man’s sight, hearing, speech, or the physical organism in general. (Mk 5:1ff)
Christ handed down to the Church the power He once exercised over Demons. The early Christians were deeply influenced by what they had learned of their Master’s dealing with evil spirits, and there was on their part frequent use of the charismatic gifts of healing the sick and driving out devils. But the prayers and forms used for exorcism in the first centuries have not come down to us, outside the ones used in baptism. Exorcism became part of the baptismal rite somewhere around 200 A.D. Thus the ancient liturgical records which date from the third century, those dealing with baptism, give us the early Christians’ belief about Satan and his intervention in the affairs of man. In the devil’s hatred for God he .turned on man, who is made in God’s image. In consequence of original sin men are no longer temples of the Holy Spirit but rather the habitations of the Demon. Not too much distinction is made between the possessed and the unbaptized. Isidore of Seville puts both on the same level, and says that exorcism is the ceremony of banishing the most wicked influence of the devil from catechumens and possessed alike. (Dictionnaire D’ Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie, V, Pt. 1, 963 if.)
It is difficult to fix precisely the time of origin of a special rite for exorcism. The evidence would indicate that in the early Church acts of exorcism consisted mainly in the sign of the cross, invoking the name of Jesus, and renunciations of Satan and adjurations and threats uttered against him. But later on, especially in the Latin Church, the rites of exorcism become more and more numerous, until in the highly imaginative Middle Ages there is actually a profusion of them. To this period we must attribute beliefs and practices which are superstitious to an extreme. Devils are believed to exist in the guise of certain material bodies. Demonic possession is confounded with epilepsy and other mental or psychic disorders. Rituals of this time prescribe that the subject remain in the presence of the exorcist throughout the period of exorcism, that he observe a strict fast and limit his diet to blessed water, salt, and vegetables, that he wear new clothes, that he abstain from the marital act. No less complicated are the injunctions for the exorcist. And by the time we come to the fourteenth century magical practices have been introduced into the ceremonies.
No doubt the present rite for exorcism will undergo improvement and revision along with the general revision of the liturgical books recommended by Vatican Council II. But compared to former times the rite as given in the Roman Ritual today is characterized by great sobriety. Some minds might still discern traces of a certain naivete, yet at any rate it has been purged of the unfortunate accretions of a period ruled much more by human credulity than by the unadulterated doctrine of the Church. No longer, for example, does the official text afford any grounds for the erroneous notion that diabolical possession is necessarily a divine retribution visited upon a grievous sinner. God allows this terrible evil in His wisdom without the afflicted person being necessarily at fault. It is one thing to have fallen into the slavery of sin or to be afflicted with a bodily or mental infirmity, and quite another to have the devil enter into a man and take possession of him.
The general rules for exorcism that follow are a clear indication that we have come a long way from the superstitious notions that prevailed in the era of the Middle Ages. Noteworthy among these rules are the ones that direct that the parties concerned should have recourse to the holy sacraments, and that the sacred words of Holy Writ should be employed rather than any forms devised by the exorcist or someone else. The instructions given below indicate that the Church has carefully guarded the extraordinary power over Satan committed to her by Christ, and that Catholic exorcism is poles removed from any form of dabbling in the spirit world which springs from human chicanery or malice.