Exorcists feel isolated -- but this course aims to change that

Researchers for the first time are collecting data on the ministry of exorcism. Initial interviews show that many exorcists feel isolated. But a long-running course in Rome is trying to change that.

Father Luis Ramirez, an organizer of the course being held this year on May 16-20, told CNA: "Let's say that until 30 years ago the exorcist usually worked almost alone, that is, he worked with two or three people."

Now, the priest said, "there is much greater knowledge that the exorcist must have a team, he must also have support. He has to have a team that can help."

Ramirez is one of the organizers of an annual week-long course on the ministry of exorcism and prayers of liberation for exorcists and those who assist them, put on by the Sacerdos Institute and the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, a Catholic university run by the Legionaries of Christ.

The exorcism course's 16th edition is taking place in Rome this week, with the participation of around 120 people, most of whom come from countries outside Italy, including the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, and Nigeria. Attendance is down only slightly from 2019, the last in-person event before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.

While only a priest can perform the rite of exorcism, laypeople often assist at the rite with prayers. When someone is believed to be having trouble with demonic oppression or possession, psychologists or other medical professionals may also be called in to perform examinations, to rule out natural causes for disturbances.

Researchers from GRIS, an Italian socio-religious research group, have been studying the ministry of exorcists in the Church, including "mapping" their presence -- or lack of it -- in Catholic dioceses.

On May 16, they presented some of their early findings, while highlighting that "exorcism is a sensitive topic which creates difficulties" for research.

Initial findings in interviews with exorcist priests, they said, showed "conditions of isolation."

"There are complaints of a certain lack of support or communication from dioceses and/or other priests. The isolation of the exorcist affects the ways in which the afflicted people are supported," the presentation said.

The presence of stable diocesan staff as support was missed, and there were additional challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The major difficulties perceived come not from the ministry itself, but from the material conditions of its performance," researchers said. These difficulties included not having sufficient time to listen to everyone who approaches them, especially when an exorcist also has other priestly duties in a parish.

The interviewed priests also identified a lack of an internal network of exorcists providing guidance and advice -- something the Rome exorcism course is also trying to combat.

In addition to professional formation on theological and sacramental topics related to exorcism ministry, the course now includes a two-hour lunch break.

"Eating all together, there's the opportunity to share experiences and to know another priest who maybe has more experience, getting the contact," Father Ramirez said.

He noted that since the first course they ran 16 years ago, every year it has grown and grown.

"So here we realized that there was really a great interest," he said.