“Consider that the devil doesn’t sleep but seeks our ruin in a thousand ways,” St. Angela Merici once said. The traditional Prayer to St. Michael asks God’s protection from “Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” The devil tempts people to sin, but demons sometimes attempt our ruin far more aggressively—even by possession.
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Adam Christian Blai is a peritus—a theological consultant—in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He provides training in exorcism to priests across the country and is an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome. He holds a master’s degree in psychology and has done most of his professional psychological work in forensic settings.
Last fall Emmaus Road published Blai’s book Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcisms. He also has written A Roman Catholic Pastoral Manual for Exorcism, Deliverance, and Home Cases, now in its second edition, available to Catholic priests on request through his website, which is religiousdemonology.com.
Catholic Answers Magazine: How did you get into the profession of demonology? You describe it almost as a calling.
Blai: I think that my whole life has been preparing me for this work, but that’s a long story!
In a concrete way, it started in graduate school for adult clinical psychology. I was doing brain-wave research on hypnosis and the brain’s ability to create false experiences. At that time, the paranormal TV show craze was just starting. I was curious if the people on these shows were just having false experiences or were mentally ill. I got called to the Pittsburgh diocese to look at a case there for them. That case is now known to the public, as they have written a book about it.
Anyway, through that case and many others, I was slowly drawn into meeting specialist priests in this area, and then through assisting at exorcisms I met people who invited me to be an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists. Now I work full-time at the Pittsburgh diocese and help train priests nationally.
We don’t often hear about priests performing exorcisms. Obviously, there are privacy issues involved. Do exorcisms take place more often than we realize? Are most U.S. dioceses prepared to handle such cases?
There are roughly one to four possession cases going in a major city at any time. Most exorcists are doing an exorcism monthly, weekly, or more often. It’s usually best to have sessions weekly for each person.
What you say is true, though. In order to protect the person and the family, the Church doesn’t talk about the particulars of exorcism. Imagine if it was your relative and a news story ran about them having exorcisms. Their life would likely be ruined with reporters at the front door the next day.
Historically, does demonic activity tend to ebb and flow? Is it on the increase in our generation?
Historically there is a wave of intense exorcism activity as Christianity first enters a culture, for about fifty years, then it settles down. I think we are seeing an increase in our generation for the opposite reason: because people are leaving Christianity, and the demons have freer rein to play their cons on people now.
Some people doubt the existence of the devil, believing that he is a human construct to explain the presence of evil. Others have perhaps an unhealthy interest in the demonic. The Church teaches that demons do indeed exist. What are demons, and who is Satan?
At the beginning, God created the angels with free will and the abilities to do their particular jobs. All of time was explained, and the angels were asked if they would serve in the roles they were created for—to encourage chastity, for instance. Led by Satan, about a third said no and were cast out of heaven down to Earth to roam here until the end of time. They made that choice with full knowledge of the consequences to the end of time, so they never want to repent, nor can they.
After they were cast out, the fallen angels retained their abilities. As demons they use their abilities, called faculties, to do the opposite of what they were created for. So, the angel who was created to encourage chastity now becomes a demon of lust. Satan was initially the most gifted angel and was the one that led the other fallen angels in their revolt. There are nine choirs of angels; some fell from each choir, so we have a hierarchy in heaven and also among the demons.
The demons do what they are told because they fear the punishment from higher-level fallen angels, particularly Satan. Ultimately God will punish them all individually in the lake of fire, but that comes at the final judgment.
Which is more dangerous: dismissing the devil’s involvement in the world or attributing too much to the work of the devil?
The important thing is to focus on human free will and our relationship with God. The demons are not central players here; we give them sway in the world only through our choices. Their job is to tempt us, but we make the decisions to follow those promptings. So, in a sense, they are behind all the evil, but it is we who allow evil to manifest.
Exorcism has been around since the time of Christ. How did the formal rituals of exorcism develop?
Well, that’s a long story, but here is the short version. Exorcism has been common in the Church from the beginning, as part of being baptized into the Church in the early days, and also for possessed people in general.
Over the centuries, the prayers developed differently in different parts of the world. In 1614, the Church decided to standardize exorcism, and they took the best of all the rites and made the solemn exorcism rite we have used since then. The rite was revised in 1999 as part of the Second Vatican Council reforms, but it’s not out in English yet.
Your book refers to demonic infestation, obsession, and possession. What’s the difference between them?
The Church generally defines three types of extraordinary demonic activity: demonic infestation, oppression/obsession, and possession. Infestation is when demons have the right to do extraordinary things in a place. Oppression and obsession are both translated from the Latin obsessio; it means a personal extraordinary attack on a person. Possession is when the demon has gained the rights to take over the body but not the soul.
The Church calls for prudence in discerning whether one is dealing with an evil presence or an illness. How does one determine that with certainty? What are the telltale signs of demonic activity?
First, you have medical and psychological evaluations to rule out a mundane explanation. Beyond that, there are some signs you need to document before you ask your bishop for permission to do an exorcism.
These signs can include the person in question knowing all languages, knowing secret things the person could not know (Hollywood focuses on knowing the secret sins of people present), detecting the holy (like saying which saint’s relic you have in your pocket), and preternatural strength.
We know from psychiatric settings that people can be extremely strong sometimes, so we would not diagnose possession from strength alone.
You distinguish between exorcism and deliverance. How do these two things differ?
A solemn exorcism of a person is a liturgical rite that can be done only by a priest with permission from his bishop. That permission lends the bishop’s apostolic authority to the priest. Exorcisms include a direct command from the priest to the demon—in Jesus’ name, of course.
Deliverance is not a direct command but a request to God to help a person. Because it’s a petition, or praying for a person, anyone can do that.
The Church wisely says that possessed people need exorcism, not deliverance prayer. Deliverance prayer generally doesn’t work on possession, as that situation requires the full apostolic authority that Jesus gave to the apostles.
There have been abuses in deliverance prayer teams in different parts of the world, prompting the letter from then-Cardinal [Joseph ] Ratzinger that clarified that lay people are not to speak to demons. That letter is on the Vatican website.
You speak of a demon having “rights” for infestation, obsession, or possession. How does a demon obtain such rights? Must he be invited in some way?
God allows demons to tempt us as their ordinary function, which has been going on since the Garden. When they want permission from God to do more than tempt us, they generally need our permission first. We give permission by inviting a deeper relationship with them, sometimes through black magic, spirit communication, or other violations of the First Commandment. There are exceptions where God allows an extraordinary trial without our permission, but it’s limited. We see this in the book of Job and the lives of some saints.
Demonic possession, I would imagine, does not usually happen all at once. What typically are the steps or stages that lead to possession?
Demons usually start with a con game. They may pretend to be a dead loved one, a holy angel, the spirit of a child in distress, or another spirit. After they lure the person into communication, they usually offer success, power, money, protection, or something the person thinks he needs.
Later, when the person is getting in too deep, the demons stop acting like a harmless servant and start dictating what the person can and cannot do. As the relationship deepens, it becomes torture, with the only out proposed either possession or suicide. Demons never give what they promise, not really, and it’s all taken away once the person is in too deep to back out on their own.
Is the person who experiences demonic obsession or possession incapable of helping himself, of warding off the demon alone?
The person usually has invited the relationship because they don’t know it’s a demon. Now, some people are born into Satanist families, and they know it’s a demon, and they want it. The person who has been conned can usually back out and repent if things have not gone far. Once it becomes oppression—think of that like an abusive spouse who controls someone through fear and suffering—it may be hard to get out on your own. With possession it almost always requires the rite of solemn exorcism.
How many exorcisms have you participated in or observed, and in what capacity?
I really don’t know, more than a hundred. At many I assisted as part of the team, maybe gently restraining the person. At many, I attended to coach the priest through the exorcism if he was new to the ministry. Exorcism is a fixed rite in a book, but it’s also an art. The demon isn’t passively sitting there letting you read from the book; it is an active opponent.
Is exorcism a frightening experience?
I’ve never felt fear. I think God just removes that as part of a calling to be involved in this. I’ve seen that with most priests and team members called into this ministry. As time goes on and it becomes clearer that Satan and the demons are limited, fallen creatures on a leash—and that Jesus holds the leash—the drama is even less scary. As the Bible says, don’t fear him who can destroy the body but him who can destroy the body and the soul. Our souls are God’s, and God alone judges us and determines where we go.
On a personal level, any job can carry over its stress or concerns to one’s home life. How does this line of work affect you and your loved ones?
I don’t really have any stress or concerns from this work because I follow the advice that was given to me: no wife, no kids, and no pets. This is because the demons will take revenge on people close to us if those people are vulnerable.
Your book mentions “rules” that must be observed when dealing with demons. What are some of these?
Follow the Church’s rules. Follow the exorcist’s directions. Don’t speak to the demons, and don’t respond to the demons. Pray.
Walk us through an exorcism. How does the demon normally manifest itself?
During the Litany of the Saints, which precedes every exorcism rite, the demons manifest by taking over the body, shuddering, moaning, then often laughing, and starting to mock or manipulate the people present. As the session goes on, the demons’ bravado decreases as the prayers, holy water, and other factors wear them down. Toward the end, they are often screaming they want to leave, sometimes offering the priest “anything” if he will just stop. I could write a book about the funny quotes I’ve heard demons say, but I won’t.
How effective are exorcisms? What is the “success rate”?
Most cases take six months to two years of weekly sessions before they are done. Some are over in one session. The success depends mainly on the possessed person’s willingness to change their life, trust God, and relate more closely with God. They have to cooperate with the grace Jesus is giving them in so many ways. He wants them to be free, but he frees them in stages, as much change as they can handle and adapt to at a time. Remember, most possessions have been going on for ten years or a lifetime. If the demons are all ripped out at once, the person feels like they don’t know who they are, it’s too much of a shock to their psyche, and they usually relapse.
Hollywood films have portrayed stories of possession and exorcism any number of times. What do they tend to get wrong?
They make it out to be one dramatic session, and, as we said, it’s many. They are brief, whereas real exorcisms are usually two to five hours at a time. Big dramatic manifestations like thunderclaps, levitation, or things flying around the room are rare even in exorcisms. Usually the really scary and disturbing things are the manipulations and things the demons say.
I was intrigued by your discussion in the manual of human spirit hauntings—how souls in purgatory can sometimes manifest themselves in requesting our prayers, and how demons can sometimes use these to gain access to us. Can you explain?
We know that the poor souls in purgatory can benefit from our Masses and prayers to speed their time in purgatory. In the lives of many saints, the poor souls have appeared and made such requests. In rare cases, particularly with suicides and murders, they seem to be allowed to signal their presence and a need for prayer. Interestingly, I’ve seen this many times in churches and rectories where priests have died.
The demons commonly pretend to be a dead person to lure the living into communication and relationship. Remember, necromancy—calling the dead to talk with them—is strongly forbidden in the Bible. It is a First Commandment issue, because you are seeking information or comfort from a spirit other than God. The poor souls will say yes only to prayer or nothing at all. The demons will want to have a conversation. If it wants to have a conversation, it’s a trick.
What is our best protection against demonic influences?
The sacramental life: baptism, confession, and the Mass. Avoid violating the First Commandment and entering into a relationship with a spirit other than God. Pray in a healthy, balanced way each morning and night.
Suppose a person becomes concerned about behavioral changes in a family member or loved one and begins to suspect something more than just a physical or psychological disorder is in play. When do they know it is time to seek the Church’s help? Where should they take their concerns?
Don’t jump to a demonic hypothesis first. I’ve seen a number of medical conditions that went untreated and got worse because of this error. Talk with your doctor, and rule out all the mundane things.
Demonic changes in behavior usually come from serious involvement in the occult or black magic, not just going through a Goth phase or having a moody teenager. The elderly often have personality and behavior changes that are from aging processes or disease; talk with your doctors first. If you still suspect a spiritual problem, start by talking with your local priest, then your diocesan central office if they refer you there.
Extraordinary spiritual problems are rare, but they are real. Don’t fear these things, but focus on your personal relationship with Jesus and his Church.
Demons Understand English, Too
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made available in fall 2017 the first official English translation of the ritual book Exorcisms and Related Supplications. Although distribution was limited to prelates, other qualified individuals—such as exorcists, other clergy, or academic scholars—may obtain a copy with their bishop’s approval.
Although the English translation is from the 1999 rite in Latin revised in the wake of Vatican II, it draws from centuries-old rituals.
Fewer priests know Latin than in the past, so it allows more priests to perform exorcisms, concentrating on the prayers and forms without having to deal with a foreign language. Since demonic activity seems to be on the rise in the U.S., this should make it easier for bishops to find priests to help them in the exorcism ministry.
The book includes an appendix of familiar and little-known prayers titled “Supplications Which May Be Used by the Faithful Privately in Their Struggle Against the Powers of Darkness.” A USCCB spokesman said that although the book is not available to laypersons, the appendix has been made into a booklet, Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness, which is available from the publishing arm of the bishops’ conference.