|Jesus healing the Gadarene demoniac Legion|
“Within the ten years I’ve been working as an exorcist I’d say I’ve had between 30 and 40 cases. Before I was asked to take on the role I wasn’t aware there was so much of this healing needed – I knew it had always gone on, but just not to this degree. After the bishop appointed me I asked him if this was unusual. He simply said, ‘It goes on more than people know’.”
Father Paul Everson is not a world weary priest with a vial of holy water secreted about his person. He is a dry witted 76-year-old exorcist, whose gentle nature and clerical collar are more Vicar of Dibley than Van Helsing.
After serving the Catholic Church for 42 years, Fr Everson was asked by his bishop to become the resident exorcist of his diocese. The role wasn’t to include a cruciform business card, with all cases referred to him via the bishop and other priests:
“We’re not advised to give people our telephone number or details. The bishop’s not trying to stop people from approaching me, he’s just being considerate. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not trying to be secretive about it as it’s a public ministry. He wants me to do the ministry and for everyone to find it available to them, but not in that public way.”
The exorcisms practised by Fr Everson consist of major and minor forms. ‘Major’ exorcisms – which must be approved by a bishop – cast out any malevolent spirits from a possessed person, ridding them of demonic influences. A ‘minor’ exorcism can refer to freeing an individual from oppressive forces, or the spiritual cleansing of a physical place such as a house.
Since taking the role in 2002, Fr Everson has noted a rise in the number of requests for his services – a trend he puts down to materialism, a lack of God in people’s lives and the wrong help being sought for spiritual problems.
“In all kindness and charity, there’s a lot of evil in the world... the devil is having a heyday.”
Fr Everson’s role as resident exorcist requires a great deal of patience and a willingness to hear people out rather than push them away. His most testing case came last year when a priest requested his help with a ‘rage filled’ man.
When Fr Everson entered the room he found the man to be unresponsive:
“He was just staring about the room with a look of anger. As with all cases, I do my best to talk through with the individual what they’re feeling and experiencing. At the end of that I try to make a conclusion as to what sort of prayer, liturgy and care they might need.
“When I began speaking to him, he started being abusive with his language: ‘You can’t help me, what are you doing here’, then cruder, blasphemous things, against God, the Church, against priests. Then quite suddenly he snapped out of it and talk normally about his work and life.”
After a short conversation, the man lapsed back into an aggressive state. Without warning, he took hold of the exorcist by the collar and forced him against the wall. Fr Everson made no attempt to react, and was eventually released with the help of the man’s priest.
“I still couldn’t make my mind up about his condition, but I didn’t think he was ‘possessed’ as such. I told his priest that I thought this man needed psychiatric help – which he was getting.”
Fr Everson decided to conduct a prayer of minor exorcism (see panel) and insisted that the man continue seeing a psychiatrist. The man’s priest has since reported that he’s doing well.
In spite of the occasional danger, Fr Everson is humbled by his role.
“It’s very special work really. I’m not pleased that people are troubled in this way, but I’m pleased to be an instrument to help them.”
Our daily bread
The work of an exorcist is not always as extreme as Fr Everson’s encounter. Troubled buildings are more common than troubled souls, with most cases involving an ‘unwanted presence’. The Reverend Claire Wills, a shy and softly spoken 68-year-old vicar of the Church of England, gained her first experience of a deliverance while training for ordination in 1996.
“I grew up in a liberal tradition, so I’d always faltered in my understanding of demons and spirits as you find them in the New Testament. I wasn’t quite sure how ‘real’ they were, so to speak –were they just something we had demythologised and now understood as psychological issues?”
The vicar mentoring Rev Wills was a member of the diocesan deliverance team – a multi-disciplinary group of clergy and medical professionals tasked with responding to exorcism requests made of the Church of England.
Rev Wills was asked by her vicar if she would accompany him on a visit to a family who had reported feeling an ‘uncomfortable presence’ in their home. He required her prayer support and suggested it would be a valuable opportunity to widen her experience.
On arriving, the vicar and Rev Wills made their way around the house to look for any rational explanation to the family’s complaint – expanding pipes, loose floorboards and shifting foundations often the cause of many suspected spirits. After finding no corporeal explanation, the vicar began reading a prayer to bless the home:
“Everything got a bit dramatic,” recalls Rev Wills. “Things jumped off the walls of the room we were in and started moving around. The family, who were in the room with us, seemed to become tied together as if by ropes.”
To the relief of Rev Wills and the family, as the vicar finished reciting the blessing the unusual activity stopped. The family didn’t report any further disturbances after their visit.
The rising dark
Now part of a deliverance team of six clergy, Rev Wills often finds herself struggling to keep up with her caseload, overseeing the exorcism requests of three counties. She claims that in the last 5 years the number of exorcists working in the Midlands has tripled to cope with demand for the ministry:
“There are a growing number of people dabbling in the Occult. Some people are just far more sensitive to this sort of thing than others, with young people in particular getting into stuff that scares them. They can be deeply affected by TV shows and videos on the subject. I groan whenever I see a pub advertising psychic evenings. The deliverance team gets busier all the time, and there’s a growing need to recruit more people.”
Despite a successful case history, Rev Wills hasn’t gained Fr Everson’s affection for the work of exorcism.
“It might sound strange, but whenever I receive a new case I never want to go. Some people think it’s a glamorous role but it truly isn’t. I hate going.
“Some people who come to you are mentally ill or just mildly deluded. Some are unstable and attention-seekers. You’re often dealing with some really nasty stuff.”
Rev Wills reveals that in recent decades, more people have felt able to come forward with issues relating to childhood sexual abuse inflicted by Satanists and Coven groups.
“In the West Midlands there’s a specialist counselling organisation which deals specifically with the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. If they come across a client who has obviously had Coven experience they refer them to us straight away.”
One such case concerned a woman who was adopted by a couple who practised Satanism. The woman alleges that she was repeatedly raped in Coven ceremonies and eventually became pregnant. Shortly after her child was born, it was sacrificed in a satanic ritual.
Rev Wills explains that the woman required spiritual deliverance, in which malicious and damaging spirits are ‘bound’ and cast out with liturgical prayer.
“There’s also a great need to reassure the victim that they can be released from any vows made to Satan, that the victory of the cross is a stronger power and that God loves them. All of this work can take a long time.”
Not all new cases have their roots in Satanism. The Reverend Thomas Allison, a convener for a Church of England deliverance team, views the structure of modern society as the main contributor to the increase in requests:
“There isn’t the formal route for spirituality that there used to be. Three or four generations ago families were used to going to church on a Sunday. If things happened that were unusual, they had a ready made framework and point of contact for such problems to be dealt with.”
Rev Allison also cites spiritual consumerism as another cause of recent growth.
“People will describe themselves as very spiritual despite not attending a religious service each week – which is fine, but it often means these spiritual yearnings are unfocussed and unmet. People will happily watch films like The Exorcist or The Last Exorcism and be drawn in by the special effects and the pseudo-spiritualist atmosphere, which in itself can draw them into all sorts of things.”
Rev Allison finds that many often turn to the internet for help which they might once have sought from the Church.
“Very often they’ll go to the website that’s got the flashiest advertisements and call in someone who’s more than likely a charlatan. They’ll tell the family just what they want to hear, take their money, and not actually solve their problem for them. If they fail to find a solution elsewhere, they turn to the Church as a last resort.”
It’s Rev Allison’s responsibility as the convener of a diocesan deliverance team to ensure that the Church of England’s guidelines are followed when a major exorcism is proposed. Written in 1975 by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Donald Coggan, they suggest a report is submitted to the bishop, outlining the recommendations of the deliverance team and a medical professional. The bishop may then permit an exorcism to take place if it is appropriate.
“It’s always best practice that any case of deliverance, no matter how minor, is discussed in the team. We need to get as wide a field of thought, theology and pastoral care surrounding that person or situation. It’s all very carefully controlled and those safeguards need to be there.”
A difference of professional opinion
Outside the Church of England, only the Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations have a formal framework for dealing with exorcisms.
It is the view of Father Simon Meleton, a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Church for 45 years, that exorcisms are wildly misunderstood in the West as sensational events. In reality, most exorcisms occur in prayers of blessing and baptism services:
“It may be that someone feels that things just aren’t going all that well for them, or that they’re depressed or feeling oppressed by something. Sometimes people invite a priest to their home for a blessing with Holy water and ask for an exorcism to be read – in other words, that the evil influences that they think are around them may be dispelled. An individual will usually sit or kneel before a priest, or lie in bed, and a prayer is read over them.”
Although all Catholic priests receive the minor order of exorcist at ordination, it is the policy of Catholic bishops of England and Wales to appoint a priest in each diocese to oversee the ministry.
In October of last year Fr Everson attended a conference for Catholic priests new to the role of exorcist, allowing them to meet and discuss their difficulties with more experienced practitioners. He was surprised to learn that major exorcisms of possessed people very rarely occur:
“Nevertheless there can be possession, and less than that, there can be people who are disturbed by restless spirits.
“I have come to the conclusion on more than one occasion that an individual seeking help has been quite psychologically disturbed or required psychiatric care. In one particular case a psychiatrist and I worked together – there’s a bit of overlapping sometimes.
“This particular psychiatrist was very supportive of the work of exorcism – not all are, and I say this with the greatest of respect to them – there are some who think my work is a lot of nonsense. But there are those who are sympathetic and who are very grateful to have us work with them.”
If an individual displays a temporary loss of personal identity, or appears to be taken over by an external personality or force, a psychiatrist may give a diagnosis of ‘trance’ or ‘possession disorder’. Such trance states have even been diagnosed in young fans of bands and pop groups.
“Many people have dissociative symptoms where they don’t feel themselves or can’t remember what they are doing,” explains Dr Daniel Nicholls, a psychiatrist who has worked alongside exorcists. “An individual can consciously or unconsciously resort to be being out of control – or in extremes ‘possessed’ – as a way to express themselves when they are very hurt and have a poorly formed personality, which is often the result of traumatic early life experiences.
“Psychiatrists will generally assume there is no spiritual component to these symptoms and will treat it as a dissociative disorder. If it looks like possession, then it will be diagnosed as ‘possession disorder’ – a medical description rather than a theological statement.”
While having a Christian faith of his own, Dr Nicholls is unsure of the role that exorcism plays in dealing with such patients:
“My thoughts about this condition are generally inconclusive. There are worrying cases, but we mustn’t jump to thinking things are always spiritual as that can be very damaging for the individual.”
The cast who cast out
While the exorcists are glad that more people are turning to them for help, each of them feel that more can be done.
Fr Everson believes it’s simply a case of education:
“Whenever I work with people, I ask if they’ve delved into things like the Ouija board or things of that nature. I tell them that I view working with them a delight and privilege, but I insist that they turn away from that. It won’t do you any good at all, but it can do you harm.”
For Rev Allison, the Church of England needs to be more confident in treading the tightrope:
“The Church does need to be in the public arena, but in a very sensitive way, so that the ministry is rightly advertised. I have to say that for many people who are troubled with these phenomena exorcists have become the last resort. I’m buoyed up by that possibly meaning that the Church still has some credence and that people still ultimately recognise that there’s an organisation with 2000 years of experience in dealing with these problems.”
Despite its experience, Rev Will believes that the Church is very nervous about drawing publicity to their work:
“One of the reasons the Church isn’t very forward about this ministry is that it doesn’t want the opposition to know that we’re working to combat them.”
“Those involved in Occult practices and Satanism. Most dioceses may have kept one expert on their books, but didn’t really expect him to be called. Gradually through having ignored ‘the devil and all his works’ for so long, the incidences of hauntings, unquiet dead, possession and other paranormal phenomena have increased dramatically. That’s partly because it’s now culturally acceptable to have psychic evenings, play with Ouija boards and consult mediums. People are no longer frightened to mess about with contacting the dead, or the devil. It isn’t a no-no any more, and the Church is reacting to the situation in society.”