Susan Klemond is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn., who writes news and feature articles for the Register, OSV Newsweekly, and the Catholic Spirit, the diocesan paper for St. Paul-Minneapolis. She also has worked in marketing, editing, and magazine production.
The recent resignation of Spanish bishop and exorcist Xavier Novell Goma has drawn attention to challenges exorcists can face.
As the Church’s representatives, exorcists are given Christ’s authority in his name to deliver or protect persons or objects from Satan’s power and withdraw them from his dominion — but several exorcists say they need the Church’s support to fight these battles.
As requests for exorcists’ assistance continue to increase, the August resignation of Spanish bishop and exorcist Xavier Novell Goma has drawn attention to challenges exorcists face and their need for support.
All of the reasons why the 52-year-old bishop emeritus resigned are not known, but he isn’t the first exorcist to leave the ministry, as they face burnout, isolation, and spiritual attacks while helping people find relief from demonic afflictions.
“I’ve known priests for whom the ministry just becomes so overwhelming that the temptation is so great to walk away so you don’t have to deal with it anymore,” said Father Vincent Lampert, pastor of St. Michael and St. Peter in Brookville, Indiana, and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ designated exorcist since 2005. One of the few publicly known exorcists, he said he receives eight to 10 calls for help daily.
In seeking ways to better support exorcists and those they help, bishops are forming diocesan offices to manage the ministry. And some seminaries are again providing exorcism-related formation, as priests learn more about their role in helping parishioners with problems less severe than possession.
In 2010, Bishop Novell was appointed ordinary of the Diocese of Solsana, located about 100 miles west of Barcelona. Last month he applied for a civil marriage license with Silvia Caballol, author of erotic novels with satanic overtones, according to Catholic News Agency. It’s unknown if he had attempted to help Caballol.
Targeted by Evil Forces?
Bishops are the principal exorcists of their dioceses who may take on cases, though frequently they assign the ministry to other priests, said Legionary Father P. Luis Ramirez, coordinator of the Sacerdos Institute, which as part of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome is involved with priestly formation.
Last month the Institute offered a course on exorcism and the prayer of liberation. About half the attendees were laypeople, Father Ramirez said.
If Bishop Novell was acting as an exorcist he could have been targeted by evil forces, Father Lampert said. “A fair question would be, did this person who came to him, were they really seeking help, or were they there to destroy him?”
Exorcists are in greater demand because the devil gains a foothold when people lack faith, are poorly catechized, and explore secularism, the occult, and false religions, said Father Smith (not his real name) exorcist on the East Coast who has been in his ministry for eight years.
Some can’t distinguish between demonic and psychological problems while many fear demons but not sin, he added.
With many individuals in spiritual trouble today, an exorcist who isn’t well-grounded as a priest can believe that he, not God, is dispelling evil, Father Lampert said.
“I have people all the time, [saying] ‘Father you’re the only one who can help me,’” he said. “No, Christ is the one who can help you and I can help guide you in that process.’ It isn’t just relying on me; it’s being part of a community of faith. There are a lot of people in isolation today, they need to be brought back into the community. The Church wants to provide the community.”
Isolation also can be a problem for exorcists, Father Lampert said.
“You’re doing a ministry that most people don’t really understand,” he said. “You’re dealing with people who are on the fringes, they’re dealing with the demonic, that’s something people would just prefer to ignore.”
An exorcist assisting a woman over a period of time without lay help can face temptation, Father Smith said. “Any priest who falls in this regard, they’ve fallen into isolation, whether it was demonically induced,” he said. “But really almost any temptation toward evil the enemy is somewhere in there. Priests like anybody can make poor choices and before you know it, they’re over their heads and they’re drowning.”
Exorcists should always have a family member or another female in the room during sessions with women and limit physical contact with them, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti wrote. A licensed psychologist, Msgr. Rossetti is the chief exorcist for the Washington Archdiocese, a priest in Syracuse, N.Y. Diocese, and president and founder of the St. Michael Center for Spiritual Renewal in Rockville, Maryland.
Exorcists also should avoid contacting the person between sessions and request that a trained female spiritual director guide her. These rules promote a healthier dynamic and more rapid liberation while helping the person realize that their real healer is Jesus, Msgr. Rossetti said.
Demons can attack an exorcist’s faith when they pray for people, Father Ramirez said. “The evil one is always attacking our faith because the efficacy of the prayer is through the faith of the priest and the others who are united in prayer.”
It’s important for exorcists to cultivate a deep spiritual life, be men of prayer and reach out to other exorcists for support, exorcists said.
In part to support exorcists, some Latin American and the U.S. bishops are organizing or considering diocesan teams that include administrative, psychological, medical, and legal experts to better address requests for the exorcist’s help, Father Ramirez said.
“This is very important because once you have an office the people know that they have to contact the diocese or the parish priest if they need help,” he said. ”They contact the office, and this is the Church that is helping people — and the exorcist priest if they need to do an exorcism.”
In past decades, some seminaries stopped teaching subjects related to exorcism but now are beginning to offer them again, Father Smith said.
“I think No. 1, what’s very necessary today is education or re-education primarily starting with the clergy, starting in the seminary,” he said. “There has to be an acknowledgment that this exists, there has to be required reading in this area.”
Parish priests can learn to handle less-extreme demonic problems where the person needs more pastoral and spiritual help, Father Smith said.
“You’ve got a person who is obsessed or getting vexed by the devil, they might call it possession, but they’re not possessed,” he said. “This is why a regular, ordinary parish priest with some training can do a great amount of good in the field.”
Parish priests are like family doctors who can determine if their parishioner needs to see a specialist and who helps them become rooted in Christ and the sacraments, Father Lampert said.
Parish priests who follow their parishioners’ spiritual life can make initial discernments about problems and sometimes solve them by acting within the Church’s structure, Father Ramirez said.
Prayer and Fasting
The laity also can support exorcists, foremost through prayer, Father Ramirez said.
Including exorcists and the spiritually ill in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass can involve the entire congregation while individuals may pray and fast specifically for their diocesan exorcist, Father Smith said.
Laypeople with expertise, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and lawyers provide direct assistance, Father Smith said.
“That to me is a good beginning, just for people to start praying for the exorcists, for those who are involved in spiritual liberation because there are many cases where laity can do a great service to the Church in this regard.”