Wednesday 19 June 2019

Exorcism: A look at the secretive world of Irish demon busters

As the Bishop of Waterford announces the appointment of a trainee exorcist, Kim Bielenberg looks at the secretive world of the Irish demon busters

Hollywood treatment: real exorcisms are very unlike the ones in the 1973 film The Exorcist
Hollywood treatment: real exorcisms are very unlike the ones in the 1973 film The Exorcist

'I cast you out, unclean spirit," the priest shouts at a growling girl as her head spins around maniacally - and she spews out vomit.

Crucifixes are dangled hopefully, and holy water sprayed about, as a concerned cleric attempts to expel the wretched demons living within.

That is popular image of exorcism, conveyed on TV and in the movies - most notably in the classic 1973 horror film, The Exorcist.

One might have thought that the ancient act of casting out evil spirits from a person, or indeed a house, might have died out in the modern era.

To borrow a line from the soundtrack of the film Ghostbusters, if there's something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?

Generally, the church is reticent about parishioners being possessed with demons - and other reports of diabolical yokes that go bump in the night.

The practice of exorcism is considered archaic in some quarters in the church, as there was a tendency in the past to ascribe psychological disorders or even medical conditions to demonic possession.

One would not hear Archbishop Diarmuid Martin giving Satan his marching orders on an average Sunday.

In fact, the devil and all his works hardly get a look-in nowadays.

Exorcists tend to operate under cover as a kind of demon-busting secret service, but we were given a glimpse into this mysterious world this week.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Lismore and Waterford revealed that he was establishing a "delivery ministry" - a crack team who will rid the possessed people or places of the evil one. Or, at least they'll give it a try.

In an interview with the Waterford radio station WLR, Bishop Phonsie revealed that he has received "several requests" from people to deal with evil forces in their midst.

A priest in his Waterford and Lismore diocese is to start training in the practice of exorcism in order to cope with this soaring demand.

Apart from being announced on a local radio station, it's all very hush-hush, and the name of the apprentice exorcist is not being released.

One assumes that their mobile number will not be published in parish newsletters, or the Golden Pages.

We may have heard less about exorcists in recent years, but that does not mean they are not quietly going about their business.

Indeed, there have been reports of priests being called in to deal with phenomena that would not be considered everyday occurrences - holy water boiling up unaccountably, prayer cards suddenly going up in flames and crucifixes flying around living rooms.

In the Waterford area, Bishop Phonsie said he had received about nine requests to combat evil forces.

Although he said he had never witnessed an exorcism himself, the bishop regaled listeners with a bizarre account of an exorcism incident involving another priest.

"I remember one particular priest, a friend of mine who I knew who was involved in one particular case, and it was a girl, a professional girl, young, who came with her mother, and there were four men, kind of rugby types, to hold her down in the chair, such strength she had.

"The priest had warned the four guys beforehand: just make sure you've gone to Confession and one guy didn't go to Confession, one of the four, and the girl with a voice that wasn't hers, it was a male voice coming out of her, actually called out the sins of your man, the guy who hadn't gone to Confession."

Bishop Phonsie expressed particular concern about reiki, an alternative Japanese healing technique. Its practitioners claim to cure physical and mental trauma by transferring energy from the healer to the patient. In his radio interview, the bishop said: "You're channelling energies - you could well be opening yourself up to letting a spirit in, which is not good and is dangerous stuff."

Bishop Phonsie told the story of a reiki ­master who was "working on somebody one day when he actually says he saw a vision of Satan" and was "scared out of his wits".

He reportedly dropped the reiki and went back to the church.

Fr Pat Collins, a Vincentian priest based in Dublin, is one of the few priests to have talked about carrying out exorcisms in Ireland, but he declined to be interviewed by Review this week, merely referring us to his writing on the topic in The Furrow magazine earlier this year.

In the magazine, he urged Irish bishops to listen to Pope Francis who has called on confessors to refer instances of "spiritual disturbance" to "those who, in the diocese, are charged with this delicate and necessary ministry, namely, exorcists".

Fr Collins said the exorcists "must be chosen with great care and great prudence".

In theory, every diocese in the country is supposed to have an official exorcist.

But in practice, there may only be no more than one or two official diocesan holy ghostbusters operating in the entire country.

Other unofficial exorcists are believed to carry out this kind of specialist work on a freelance basis.

In the past, Fr Collins has been contacted because of reports of unexplained phenomena in homes, such as objects moving about - or electrical gadgets turning on and off.

Some householders are so terrified that they flee their homes. Others suspect that someone is possessed.

In one case in Co Derry, Fr Collins and a Church of Ireland exorcist Canon William Lendrum were called in to cast out a "malevolent spirit".

A young couple were frightened and moved out of their house after Rosary beads and a crucifix were said to fly around a room.

Holy water was reported to heat to boiling point and then, just as quickly, it froze. A prayer card to St Michael the Archangel was said to have burst into flames and the man of the house started vomiting.

At the scene, Fr Collins and Canon Lendrum said a cleansing prayer, and this supposedly helped to rid the home of the most undesirable and unwelcome spook.

The authors David Kiely and Christina McKenna documented 10 cases of Irish exorcism in their book The Dark Sacrament.

McKenna previously told me in an interview that she was encouraged to write the book after her own experience of an exorcism as a girl in Derry.

"When I was 11, we had a poltergeist in our home. After my great-aunt died we heard a tapping sound under the bed where she had been.

"A special exorcist came from England and he performed some magic in the room for a long time and we were free of it."

McKenna said the cases of exorcism in Ireland were very different to the image popularised in Hollywood.

"Usually the priest would deal with the problem by saying prayers. They would bless the house, and bless the victim with holy water."

When I talked to her, McKenna said she had never come across a head spinning like in the film, The Exorcist.

In fact, the director of the movie William Friedkin has said that the popular image of the head spinning and levitation was a complete invention of the writer of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty.

The average exorcism may be more humdrum than the impression given by Hollywood, but practitioners will continue to attempt to rid people of evil spirits.

And with the appointment of a trainee exorcist, visitors to Waterford should not be surprised if they hear the diabolical denunciation by the banks of the River Suir: "Begone, Satan!"

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