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The rite behind The Rite Print E-mail
Guest column
Written by Paul M. Matenaer, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 -- 1:00 AM
Anthony Hopkins stars in a scene from the movie The Rite.  (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

First in a three-part series on the new movie The Rite from a theological and canonical standpoint.

Man is a religious being; he is, by his very nature, directed toward that which lies beyond the senses.

Even though the western world continues to slip further into a secularism believing only that which can be measured is real, the human spirit still expresses a certain fascination with the supernatural.

Perhaps this explains The Rite, the latest Hollywood take on the often misunderstood practice of exorcism starring Anthony Hopkins as a veteran exorcist and Colin O’Donoghue as the skeptical exorcist-in-training searching for proof of God’s existence. The film is loosely based on Matt Baglio’s The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a book documenting the study and apprenticeship of Fr. Gary Thomas, a real-life exorcist currently residing in California.

Though I typically have little interest in scary movies, I did not turn down the opportunity to see The Rite on opening weekend when I was invited to accompany a classmate of mine who happens to be an exorcist-in-training himself. As the holy priest patiently answered the barrage of questions I had for him, I thought this might be an opportune time to dispel some of the myths surrounding exorcism and give my own analysis of the film in question.

To this end, I will dedicate an article every week for the next three weeks to the rite of exorcism itself, the theological and canonical deficiencies in the film, and the many realistic expressions included in this particular cinematic portrayal of exorcism.

Rite’s place in liturgy

In order to understand the rite of exorcism, one must begin by understanding its place in the Church as part of the divine liturgy, which is the source and summit of the Christian life.

When Catholics speak of the liturgy, we refer to the whole public worship of God performed by Jesus Christ the Priest and his mystical body, the Church. The liturgy is always carried out in the name of the Church by persons legitimately designated — usually bishops, priests, or deacons — and is accomplished through the approved acts, called liturgical rites.

These actions are never private, even if done alone, but are public celebrations of the whole Church by which she principally carries out her sanctifying function in the world.

Some of the liturgical rites are sacraments and some are sacramentals. Most of us have a fair understanding of the seven sacraments (i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage) through our frequent attendance at or participation in celebrations.

The meaning of sacramentals

However, sacramentals are often less understood and less frequently celebrated. Sacramentals are liturgical actions and sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments and signify spiritual effects obtained through the intercession of the Church. Their purpose is to better dispose the faithful to receive graces of sacraments and to sanctify various occasions in life.

Sacramentals always include a prayer accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands or sprinkling of holy water. Most sacramentals are blessings of persons, places, or things. Examples include the blessing of an expectant mother, blessing of a house, and blessing of a rosary.

Some sacramentals have a lasting juridic importance in consecrating persons to God or reserving objects for sacred use, such as the consecration of virgins, blessing of an abbot, dedication of a church, or dedication of an altar.

The primary difference between sacraments and sacramentals is that the sacraments were instituted by Christ and confer grace merely by their valid celebration, ex opere operato. Sacramentals, on the other hand, were instituted by the Church and confer grace through the public prayer of the Church.

What an exorcism is

An exorcism is not a sacrament but a sacramental. It is a liturgical action whereby the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion.

Exorcisms may either be minor, also called simple exorcisms, or major, also called solemn exorcisms. Minor exorcisms occur in the rite of Baptism and during the RCIA process, whereby the priest or deacon prays that the one to be baptized be released from the consequences of sin and the influence of Satan. Thus, anyone who has been baptized has been the subject of an minor exorcism.

However, when one speaks of exorcism, he usually has in mind what is called a major exorcism or solemn rite of exorcism, which attracts more attention.

Role of Satan

The major rite of exorcism is intimately tied to belief in the existence and power of Satan and other fallen angels as part of the Catholic faith. Catholic doctrine on the role of Satan in salvation history derives from the Scriptures themselves and continues through the Second Vatican Council, which makes explicit reference to the Evil One no less than 16 times in its conciliar documents.

The first letter of St. Peter instructs the faithful to be on guard against Satan who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8), and Jesus himself cast out many demons in his public ministry (e.g. Mk 5:1-20). The Church’s practice, then, of helping those afflicted by demonic possession originates with Christ.

History of the rite of exorcism

Already by the 4th century, we see evidence of an order of exorcists commissioned by the local bishop to fulfill this function, but it isn’t until after the Council of Trent that the liturgical rite of exorcism is standardized in the Roman Ritual of 1614. This rite remained in use and unchanged until 1998 when it was revised, this time in light of the Second Vatican Council, and has been updated as recently as 2004.

The current rite of exorcism contains two parts: the praenotanda and the ritual itself. The praenotanda are literally “things to be noted before.” Every liturgical rite, both sacraments and sacramentals, have these instructions in red at the beginning of the book which help the minister celebrate the rite properly.

The praenotanda for the rite of exorcism contain some basic scriptural and doctrinal statements on the practice of exorcizing demons as well as some specific instructions on the actual celebration of the rite, which will aid our understanding of it.

Qualifications of an exorcist

The praenotanda state that an exorcist must be a bishop or priest possessing devotion, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life as well as specific preparation for the role. A priest requires the express permission of the diocesan bishop to act as an exorcist. No one is allowed to perform the rite of exorcism without the permission of the bishop, who is to ensure that this priest has all of the prerequisite qualifications.

When dealing with a specific case, the praenotanda instruct the exorcist to exercise maximal circumspection and prudence, even a healthy skepticism toward the claim of possession. In fact, the exorcist must use every means available to investigate this assertion, never hesitating to consult experts in medicine and psychiatry for analysis. The one who claims possession is first to be evaluated by a physician to rule out any physical malady and then evaluated by a psychologist/psychiatrist to rule out mental illness.

Only after this has been done and the exorcist is morally certain that this person is in fact possessed by a demon can he proceed with the ritual. The exorcist must assume that the person who claims possession is merely suffering from a physical or psychological ailment unless this has been sufficiently proven to the contrary.

How rite of exorcism is celebrated

The rite of exorcism, like all liturgical rites, is then celebrated in a series of steps.

First, there is a blessing and sprinkling of holy water. Next, the exorcist and any others present pray a litany in which the mercy of God is invoked through the intercession of the saints. After the litany, there are two readings of Sacred Scripture: one or more of the psalms imploring the protection of God and a proclamation of the Gospel.

The exorcist then lays hands on the possessed, invoking the Holy Spirit for aid in exorcizing the demon, followed by recitation of the Creed or renewal of baptismal promises and benediction using a crucifix.

Finally, the rite reaches its climax with the priest praying the actual formulae of exorcism in two parts. First, there is a supplicatory prayer which is made to God, asking his blessing and favor upon the afflicted.

Then, the exorcist uses the imperative formula, which directly addresses the demon and commands him to depart in the name of Jesus Christ, containing a series of imperatives such as, “I exorcize you…”, “I command you…”, and “I adjure you…”. If necessary, this entire process may be repeated immediately or at another time. The rite is concluded with a song of thanksgiving, a prayer, and a blessing.

Even though it is easy to sensationalize or dramatize the practice of exorcisms, making them seem as something exotic, the Catholic faithful must strive to understand exorcism as part of the Church’s liturgy and one of her many weapons in the spiritual combat.

Next week’s article: What The Rite Got Wrong.

Paul Matenaer holds a M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, teaches for the Seat of Wisdom Diocesan Institute in the Diocese of Madison, and is currently studying canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.