Last week, as I scrolled through the Apple News app on my phone, a headline caught my attention: Vatican Hopes to Train 400 New Exorcists in 2021. I can’t tell you if it was a CNN, BBC, FOX News, MSNBC, or NY Times article. After reading the headline all I could think was it had to be The Onion or one of the other spoof news agencies and I checked for that… It wasn’t so I read the article because how can you not?
The gist of the article: The Vatican claims demonic possession has risen steadily since 2018 and they don’t have enough exorcists as a result and estimate they need to train 400 new exorcists in 2021 to keep up with growth.
Interestingly, the majority of these newly trained exorcists are destined for the US, Canada, and Mexico because Catholics in these three countries are experiencing the fastest and largest increase in demonic possessions. The article further stated the pandemic increased the rate of demonic possession making 2020 a very busy year for exorcists.
When I was practicing Catholicism in the 1990s, no one ever mentioned exorcism to me. I’d seen the movie The Exorcist and read the book, so I knew it happened, but it wasn’t talked about and my local priest frowned and tutted me when I asked if he were a trained exorcist. The subject was treated as if demonic possession were an archaic ritual. Catechism would have been a hell of a lot more interesting if it had included lectures on demonic possession.
Anyway, 30 years later… demonic possession is no longer a deep dirty secret: I went searching for the source of the article (it was BBC) and found over a dozen articles on Catholic exorcists and demonic possession on assorted news sites just in the last 3 years. That triggered a thought, is demonic possession on the rise because it’s lost it’s stigma enough that the Vatican encourages priests and cardinals to give interviews talking about it? Or is it on the rise because possession is becoming easier?
I am intrigued by paranormal and preternatural possibilities, but I lack belief. This is complicated by the fact that I don’t believe mankind needs a nemesis such as “the Devil” and “demons;” people are capable of great evil without assistance. For example, my best friend and I were discussing what history taught us about Nazi atrocities recently. Now, we were discussing basic middle school and high school classes, not the information learned in college classes. I remember the atmosphere experiments because the “research” helped NASA and the Navy understand what happened to the body in a zero gravity environment as well as the bottom of the ocean where the weight of several atmospheres crush down on objects. I also remember hearing of the experiments where the testicles of men and boys in the concentration camps were sliced off and “kept warm” to see how long testicles continued to produce sperm and if they could be surgically reattached if kept alive. I remember these things because concentration camp hospitals did not use anesthesia for any of their experiments and I remember thinking “my god, these people were awake when these things were done!” Hitler and his minions didn’t require the council of demons to encourage them to commit evil acts on their captives.
In comparison the tortures of demons are quaint and unimaginative. Of course a lack of need does not prove a lack of existence. Humans do not require mosquitoes and yet they exist, therefore demons might exist even though humans don’t require them to be evil. But I have digressed a great deal.
Any time the Vatican announces it requires more exorcists to keep up with possession cases, it piques my interest. There are implications of possession that go beyond the philosophical discussions on the existence of demons. The US experiences copious amounts of gun violence, so at what point does someone shoot up a nightclub full of people and claim they were demonically possessed and end up sentenced to 15 years for multiple murder? Or at what point do we revert back to thinking someone is demonically possessed due to severe mental illness, and fail to get them treatment? As a general rule, modern day exorcists are trained to identify symptoms of mental illness according to the Indiana priest who performed the most recent newsworthy exorcism. But mental illness is not always “straightforward” or “typical” and the manifestation of symptoms can run from “typical” to “excessively strange” resulting in misdiagnosis even by trained psychiatrists with decades of experience. This means some patients will get labeled demonically possessed simply because priests are rarely trained practicing psychiatrists.