Today’s NY Times reports on an Exorcism Conference which took place recently. A snip:

There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists, but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

The book The Rite: The Making of an American Exorcist, by Matt Baglio (Doubleday) is an excellent read on this subject. Every diocese has an exorcist. Something that the NY Times didn’t really point out. The book follows the training of the exorcist-priest of the Diocese of San Jose. It is a very unbiased book on the subject and I’ve talked with Fr. Gary Thomas and have heard him interviewed on the subject and he’s a very measured source on the subject.

But simply put the question on today’s blog post is appropriate. Do we believe that evil truly is a force in the world? I’ve become more comfortable with this notion recently during my 19th annotation retreat. As broken people we all have temptations and I truly believe that an evil force in the world tries to take advantage of that. So did St. Ignatius who called this “the enemy,” to use a phrase from his military background.

I keep coming back in prayer to the moment that my friend told me that his brother’s wife killed their two children. If a mother killing her own kids isn’t evidence of evil in the world, than I’m not sure what would be. But immediately, I lost a bit of faith in God. And I think that’s what the devil, or evil, or Ignatius’ enemy hopes for all of us.

What does it take for us to forget about God? To throw our belief in God away?

Evil is real. How we personify that might be up for debate, but evil certainly exists undoubtedly. I think even faithful people have something in their lives that brings fear and doubt into the forefront and lets faith take a backseat. It might be a particular sin that we choose constantly over God or maybe an incident of great tragedy pushes that boundary. Whatever it might be, it’s sometimes easy for us to default to letting evil win the day.

As God’s faithful people, we must cling to the belief that evil has no power over God. That even when horrible things happen, God redeems that evil in ways that we don’t always understand or see tangibly. Do we really believe that? In my friend’s case, I hope that his family can believe that God has taken those children into his care forever and that evil cannot ever touch them again. It doesn’t change what happened. It’s still horrific and we will deal with the damage that evil has been able to do to us, but we also have to have faith that it can’t be the final word.

Maybe exorcism reminds us that we too, have the power of faith on our side? We need a tangible reminder that evil can be defeated. Perhaps evil does get a hold of someone so intimately that they do literally possess them?

Some are skeptical, like my colleague, Fr Richard Vega, of the National Federation of Priests Councils who was quoted in the Times:

“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

I firmly and respectfully disagree. While I think exorcism should be rare and that leading people to solidify their faith and to turn away from the enemy is what most need, to deny that evil can possess a much greater force than we usually imagine on someone is quite arrogant. To deny that evil needs a tangible combatant and that the church should at minimum think about that is also haughty. There are certainly things that happen that we can’t explain. Things that mental health professionals can’t explain and that are doing harm to people. Does faith not have something to contribute here? While it might sound goofy on the surface, it also gives us an opportunity to talk about what we really believe about evil in the world.

Or do we just think that evil is a bunch of hooey?

“All that it takes for evil to triumph is that good men (and women) do nothing.” We’ve heard it time and time again. Perhaps getting more in touch with the darkness that exists in the world is exactly where the church needs to go? It’s where I think God and St. Ignatius is leading me this month as I go deeper in acknowledging my sin and weakness so I might better know how to defeat it.

So what do y’all think? Does evil exist? Are we in a battle against it, even within ourselves? How might we best battle the enemy? Or is the church making too much out of this?

You know my feelings on this. What are yours?

Today let us pray for those who face evil in their lives. Let us pray that evil does not gain any ground on us today and that God will deliver us from all evil and protect us from all anxiety, the fear that keeps us from believing that God is all powerful. Amen.