Exorcism is one of the most misunderstood rituals in the Catholic Church

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the English translation of “Exorcisms and Related Supplications” in 2014. The Vatican approved the translation in spring 2017.

Because much of the public perception of the nature and application of exorcism is shaped by mass media, the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship approved basic questions and answers with the hope of providing clear information on the topic.

What follows is that online resource edited for brevity, clarity and style. The full set of questions and answers can be found here.

Q: What is an exorcism?

Exorcism is a specific form of prayer that the church uses against the power of the devil.

Q: What is the difference between an exorcism and the sacrament of penance?

Exorcism is a prayer that falls in the category of sacramentals, one of a number of sacred signs instituted by the church “to sanctify different circumstances of life” (“Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 351), thus varying from the seven sacraments of the church instituted by Christ. The sacrament of penance forgives sins and reconciles the faithful to the church, renewing baptism and bestowing grace to fight evil and grow in virtue. As a sacramental, exorcism prepares a person for the grace of the sacrament.

Q: Why does the church need exorcisms?

There are instances when a person needs to be protected against the power of the devil or to be withdrawn from the devil’s spiritual dominion. At such times, the church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus for this protection or liberation through the use of exorcism.

Q: Is there a scriptural basis for exorcism?

While the basis for exorcism is grounded in the ministry of Jesus, there is no scriptural basis for a formal rite of exorcism apart from the use of the psalms and Gospel excerpt that were included in the rite of exorcism as it evolved.

What is clear, however, is that Jesus involved the disciples in his mission and through their commissioning continued the exorcistic work begun by Jesus himself (Matthew 10:8; Mark 3:14-15; 6:13; 16:17; Luke 9:1; 10:17). It was not a work they did in their own names, but in the name of Jesus, who had bestowed it upon them. Thus the ministry of exorcism continues in the life of the church as part of the regular pastoral care of souls.

Q: Are there different kinds of exorcisms?

There are two kinds, or forms, of exorcisms. Simple or minor forms are found in two places: first, for those preparing for baptism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and baptism for children both call for minor exorcisms; secondly, the appendix of “Exorcisms and Related Supplications” includes a series of prayers which may be used by the faithful.

The second is the solemn, or major exorcism, which is a rite that only can be performed by a bishop or priest, with the special and express permission of the local ordinary. This form is directed “at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation (of a person) from demonic possession.” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 1673)

Q: When and how is an afflicted member of the faithful referred to an exorcist?

It is advisable that every diocese establish a protocol to respond to inquiries from the someone who claims to be demonically afflicted. As part of the protocol, an assessment should occur to determine the true state of the person. Only after a thorough examination including medical, psychological, and psychiatric testing might a person be referred to the exorcist for a final determination regarding demonic possession. To be clear, the actual determination of whether a member of the faithful is genuinely possessed by the devil is made by the church, even if individuals claim to be possessed through their own self-diagnosis or psychosis.

Q: How frequently is a major exorcism performed?

The frequency of major exorcisms is determined by the credible need for the rite. That is why establishing a diocesan protocol is important. Through the centuries the church has moved cautiously when evaluating alleged cases of demonic possession. The reason for this is not to deny access to the rite for those who are in genuine need. However, the church is equally concerned that individuals not get caught up in a sensationalist mentality and thus create a kind of sideshow affair. Although rare, genuine cases of demonic possession should be addressed in a balanced manner with the utmost care being extended to the afflicted person.

Q: Who may perform the various kinds of exorcisms?

The minister of a minor exorcism is the designated authorized minister of the sacrament (RCIA or baptism for children) or blessing being celebrated. The prayers in Appendix II of the translation may be offered by any member of the clergy or the lay faithful. However, the Rite of Major Exorcism is to be celebrated only by a bishop or a priest who has obtained the special and express permission of the diocesan bishop.

Q: How does a priest become an exorcist?

A priest may be appointed to the office of exorcist either on a stable basis or for a particular occasion by the diocesan bishop. In either case, the exorcist should work closely with, and under the direction of, the bishop.

Q: Should other members of the faithful be present when an exorcism is performed?

This text strongly recommends against the exorcist working in isolation. Even though in rare instances this may be unavoidable, the practice of performing an exorcism in solitude should be discouraged at all costs.

Q: Where should an exorcism be performed?

The norm is to celebrate the rite of exorcism in an oratory or other appropriate place such as a small chapel discreetly hidden from plain view. It is to the advantage of the exorcist whenever possible to utilize a place that is dedicated to God’s honor and not the home of the afflicted person, for instance.