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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 12, 2023
St. Michael the Archangel killing the devil, painted by Guido Reni in 1636.

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

In one corner of the room sits a pile of bags. A few paper grocery bags from Whole Foods. Reusable plastic ones from Ross, Lululemon and Primark. Mundane-looking, sloppy even, but decidedly out of place in their current location.

I am standing in the sacristy of the St. Dominic Oratory, a chapel located inside a former convent on Chicago’s Northwest Side. It is late summer and unseasonably cool outside. But inside, it’s roasting. Beside me, Father Dominic Clemente takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his brow. The windows are shut tight, and if there is air conditioning, it is definitely not turned on.

The infernal feel is a nice touch, given the topic Father Clemente and I have met to discuss: the devil.

A member of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Spiritual Healing Ministry, Father Clemente has invited me to the chapel to offer some insight into his experiences assisting the archdiocese’s exorcist, who meets regularly with individuals who believe they are possessed by demons.

Young and affable, Father Clemente may not be what immediately comes to mind when picturing folks who help drive out the devil. He has a regular-guy persona. He was once featured on a local TV newscast for his embrace of social media as a way to bring young people to church, and he likes to golf and travel.

But in the chapel, he notices me looking down at the bags. Something catches my eye. Poking out from a black, Jewel-Osco bag is a framed icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, flanked by two angels. The bag’s black handle blocks the face of the baby Jesus.

“These are cursed objects,” Father Clemente tells me, a bit too matter-of-factly.

Creepy, I think.

I ask Father Clemente to show me some of the objects. I have a sort of skepticism around the role of demons and exorcisms in daily life, but I have watched enough religiously tinged horror movies to know that I am not about to handle cursed objects.

There are religious knickknacks, some of them altered or damaged in subtle ways. Boxes of sage are piled next to books about the occult. I spot a golden figure, point to it and wonder aloud about it.

“Some kind of cursed reindeer?” Father Clemente guesses. A cursed beast or demonic idol, I offer. He offers an uneasy laugh.

•••

Spending weeks researching the devil and Catholic attitudes toward evil is not my idea of a good time. I am admittedly somewhat skeptical of the devil—or at least the devil I have come to know through a steady diet of Hollywood films.

But over and over again Pope Francis has reminded us that the devil is not simply a pop-culture trope. Just a few months ago, he revealed in an interview with an Italian journalist that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was approached by several people who claimed to be possessed by the devil.

Francis told the interviewer that he put those people in touch with trained exorcists, who reported back to him that many were “demonically obsessed,” though two were actually experiencing demonic “possession.”

The revelation should not have come as a surprise. The pope has spoken regularly about the devil since the earliest days of his papacy. I began to take note of his language about the devil when I was writing my 2015 book, The Tweetable Pope. I devoted an entire chapter to the topic. Just two years into his papacy, he had tweeted about the devil so much that I was able to compile a list of more than a dozen different titles he had ascribed to the devil:

1. Satan

2. Demon

3. Seducer

4. Tempter

5. Great Dragon

6. Ancient Serpent

7. Prince of This World

8. Darkness

9. Enemy

10. Evil One

11. Father of Hate

12. Father of Lies

13. Father of War

14. Accuser

One of the earliest viral moments from the Francis era was a video showing the pope laying his hands on the head of a young man in a wheelchair and his family, who were visiting from Mexico. Some Catholics saw in the video an exorcism, while others saw a pope praying with someone in need. (For its part, the Vatican tried to downplay the incident, saying at the time that the pope “did not intend to perform an exorcism.”)

By 2019, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had enough material to publish a 153-page book, Pope Francis: Rebuking the Devil. The book, as well as news reports chronicling the pope’s homilies, speeches and off-the-cuff remarks, reveals a few key themes.

First, Pope Francis does not allegorize Satan.

“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” he wrote in his 2018 encyclical “Gaudete et Exultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), which contains quite a bit of demon-talk. “This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

Next, he urges Christians not to relegate the devil to antiquity.

For example, in 2014 he warned: “Watch out, the devil exists! The devil exists even in the 21st century. And we must not be naïve. We must learn from the Gospel how to battle against him.”

"The devil exists even in the 21st century. And we must not be naïve."

Finally, Francis says that evidence of the devil’s existence is not all that difficult to spot. He put it bluntly during an audience in 2013: “Look around us—it is enough to open a newspaper, as I said—we see the presence of evil, the devil is acting.” We see this action, he has said, in things like hatred, temptation, false promises, division, gossip, war, corruption, isolation, pessimism, despair, hypocrisy and even the so-called liturgy wars.

•••

Pope Francis is not the only one for whom the devil is a favorite topic. As Newsweek put it earlier this year, “Satan is getting hot as hell in American pop culture.” The article points to a number of films, podcasts and music videos featuring the devil, especially the fracas following performances of the pop songs “Unholy,” by Sam Smith, and “Montero,” by Lil Nas X, that were heavy with demonic imagery. Not to mention the conventions for Satanists, the blaming of Tom Brady’s marital troubles on the occult and even worries that artificial intelligence could be a new vehicle for the devil.

But fascination with the devil is nothing new.

“The devil has been an important character in the way Americans think for a long time,” Joseph Laycock, an associate professor of philosophy at Texas State University, told America. Dr. Laycock, who co-authored the new book The Exorcist Effect, pointed back to the colonization of North America by the Puritans, for whom the devil was “real and palpable.” The settlers saw their role as fulfilling a divine mandate, establishing a “city upon a hill” that would be committed to God’s word. In their way were other groups with claims to the land or differing ideologies, whom the settlers believed manifested evil, including, at various times, Native Americans, French Catholics and even those spreading evil among their own as alleged witches.

As immigrants drove up the Catholic population in the United States, they brought with them their own understanding of the devil, which the Protestant majority viewed as overly superstitious. By the 20th century, Catholics in the United States worried about drawing scrutiny for the supernatural elements of their faith, especially as the Puritanism of old was replaced by beliefs common in mainline Protestantism, which embraced modernity.

“The Catholic Church in America had traditionally regarded exorcism as an embarrassment because this has been a majority Protestant country,” Dr. Laycock said.

But with the success of “The Exorcist,” the 1973 Academy Award-winning box office hit, Dr. Laycock argues, Catholics became less bashful about that side of their faith. And, he said, Satan and his minions became helpful tools for some Catholics to argue against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, even today, against other modernizing trends.

During the Synod on the Family, the gathering of bishops from around the world in 2015, at least one bishop, opposed to proposals to make the church more welcoming to divorced and remarried Catholics, L.G.B.T. people and women, stated that the “smoke of Satan” had entered the church. More recently, an essay by Matthew Walther in The New York Times, published shortly after the death of “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin, argued that the film rightly condemns the “typical clergyman of the modern era,” who seems not to believe in the traditional presentation of the devil.

The pope uses traditional language about the devil as a way to try to build unity.

But the fact that popular culture was once again interested in the devil and ways to exorcize evil spirits did not mean the church reacted quickly to this growing interest. Perhaps because of that, many people seeking spiritual healing were attracted to Pentecostal and evangelical healing ministries, a trend that became popular in the 1980s and continues today. That worries some Catholic leaders, who believe that Catholic clergy have the tools, tradition and wisdom to assist with such ministry.

“The church has been in a kind of balancing act, not wanting people to leave because they want an exorcism but not wanting to alienate people who think exorcism is ridiculous,” Dr. Laycock said.

The pope uses traditional language about the devil as a way to try to build unity in an otherwise fractured church, Dr. Laycock told me. Yes, there is evil, Francis frequently affirms. But he also says that evil manifests itself in various social ills, including the “unfettered pursuit of money,” which he called the “dung of the devil,” and illicit arms trafficking, which he described as evil.

•••

As I immersed myself in the study of the devil, I began to see signs of his (most people I interviewed used masculine pronouns for Satan) handiwork everywhere.

Weeds overtaking my garden and vines choking off an otherwise soaring tree?

“Demonic,” I whispered, shaking my head in disapproval at my helplessness when it comes to landscaping.

My normally serene puppy, zooming figure eights around the backyard, ripping out chunks of earth with each growling turn?

“Possessed,” I barked back, suddenly afraid my neighbors might have heard my outburst.

Gridlock on a stretch of highway that I know has been under construction for years, rows of cars threatening to make me late for an appointment that I allotted myself the bare minimum to make?

“Evil,” I hissed, frantically refreshing my Google maps, searching in vain for a faster route.

None of this is truly Satan’s fault, as much as I would like to blame my own bad habits on him. But the temptation to see the devil behind everyday inconveniences, annoying behaviors or even plain old oddities is rampant. And that can be as dangerous, a few priests warned me, as not believing in the devil at all.

The devil is, after all, not as powerful as God.

Hyperfocusing on the devil can lead a person to live in constant fear, always afraid that evil is out to get him or her. That kind of overzealousness can even border on idolatry, giving the devil too much potency and stature. The devil is, after all, not as powerful as God.

Besides, giving the devil too much power also challenges our freedom as human beings, a God-given gift.

“God’s grace is constantly working with human freedom,” the Rev. Louis J. Cameli, author of The Devil You Don’t Know: Recognizing and Resisting Evil in Everyday Life, told me. “Then the shadow side is what we’re talking about in terms of temptation and evil and destruction.”

Father Cameli, a theologian and priest in Chicago, said that because God granted human beings free will, we can make decisions that are either in accord with God’s desire for us or that ultimately harm us and others. For God to compel us to choose one way or another would make our freedom less than total, and in effect make us less than human.

But there are forces that we can choose to invite into our hearts and minds as we make those choices, he said. Sometimes that force—God’s grace, for example—may guide us toward making a just and right decision. At other times, we may find ourselves turning to something else. Evil. Temptation. The devil.

Invoking St. Thomas Aquinas, Father Cameli said most people do not willingly choose evil.

“We always choose what we think is good,” he said. Or at least we try to convince ourselves that what we are doing is good.

But we also get it wrong. An accountant stealing money from her client may convince herself that she works hard, her client will never notice, and she can use the money to help her family. A terrorist group planting a bomb that kills civilians may not see their action as evil, but rather as a dramatic way to call attention to what they perceive to be a righteous cause. A bishop quietly moving an abusive priest to another parish may believe he is protecting the privacy of the victimized family and sparing the church scandal.

From the outside, we can pretty easily see each of those actions as bad, even evil. And they certainly align with deadly sins: greed, wrath, pride. They represent a giving in to temptation. But human beings, though created good, must choose to cooperate with those forces. While this sounds otherworldly, Father Cameli said it happens more often than most people realize.

“People are caught up in things, and they can actually, through their own bad choices, advance these evil and destructive movements,” Father Cameli said.

The devil uses deception, division, diversion and discouragement.

Father Cameli said the devil uses what he calls “the four Ds,” especially when it comes to trying to keep people from carrying out the Gospel mandate to build up the kingdom of God: deception, division, diversion and discouragement.

A glance at the news shows that evil runs rampant. There are not only war and human trafficking and racism and homophobia, but also societal challenges, like immigration reform, health care access and responding to climate change, that should be solvable—but the solutions for which remain mired in debate and bureaucracy.

“There’s a temptation to allow ourselves to be caught up in the complexities [of an issue] in such a way that we become immobilized,” Father Cameli said. “People kind of throw up their hands, even people who want to do something positive.”

That sense of helplessness, the discouragement, can be demonic. “We just collapse in our own inability to deal with things,” he said.

•••

It sometimes feels as if every theological belief in the church fosters division or heated debate. So I was surprised to find, when mentioning this story to friends and clergy across the theological spectrum, how belief in the devil seemed to transcend ideological lines. But differences in what to do with that belief did emerge.

Kathleen Beckman has assisted the healing and deliverance ministry in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., for about two decades. She said that following the murder of a loved one in 1991, she began to sense that something dark was afflicting her family. So she began to learn more about the church’s healing ministry.

Ms. Beckman studied Ignatian spirituality and eventually started a prayer group for priests. When one of the priests asked for her assistance in praying with a woman he believed to be possessed by a demon, Ms. Beckman said yes. She has been involved in exorcisms ever since.

“Possession is still very rare,” Ms. Beckman told me, but she wants Catholics to be on guard against influences of the devil, temptations of the flesh and, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the spirit of this world.” Frequenting the sacraments and developing a robust prayer life are the essential tools for Christians, she said: “People need to be prepared for spiritual battles, because even if you begin to deepen your relationship with the Lord Jesus through prayer, you’re going to battle with yourself, with things of the world that will try to distract you, and with an enemy who would rather you do anything but get closer to the Lord.”

Those themes came up in nearly every interview I conducted.

(One particularly effective method to tick off the Devil? Praying the rosary. “I’ve been present many times to hear evil spirits scream out, ‘Stop those beads! They torment us!’” Ms. Beckman said.)

But Ms. Beckman was more specific than others when I asked about where she sees demonic influences at work in the world. She pointed to abortion, debates over gender and what she called “woke culture.”

Using the devil in political and cultural fights goes back centuries.

Using the devil in political and cultural fights goes back centuries.

Dr. Laycock, author of the book on “The Exorcist” mentioned earlier, said that the height of exorcism and demonological belief arrived during the Reformation. This allowed religious leaders, fighting for their faith and often for their lives, to paint their theological adversaries as demonic. “It was very political,” he said.

There are several much more recent examples.

A well-known Catholic commentator, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, left the Diocese of Madison, Wis. in 2021 after he conducted exorcisms on social media targeting what he called “demonic influence in the vote certification process” and praying “to protect vote counters from the temptations from the devil to commit fraud” during the contentious 2020 presidential election. A year earlier, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco performed an exorcism at a church where protestors had knocked down a statue depicting St. Junipero Serra because of his association with North American colonization. And when the state of Illinois adopted same-sex marriage in 2013, the bishop of Springfield, Thomas Paprocki, performed a public exorcism, stating that “the devil’s evil influences” were at work.

Even Pope Francis has invoked the devil to castigate his opponents. In 2021, he described attacks on him and the church from ideological foes as “the work of the devil.”

(Opponents of liberal politicians and policies are not the only ones invoking the supernatural. A group of self-described witches gathered regularly for years to put a spell on Donald J. Trump “so that his malignant works may fail utterly,” as the group put it.)

“I see more and more cases where exorcism is used not to heal someone, but to publicly proclaim this political issue is actually a manifestation of supernatural evil,” Dr. Laycock said. “And I find that troubling.”

And despite Ms. Beckman’s concerns about the current culture, she also is wary of people spending too much energy looking for the devil at work in the contemporary world. Videos claiming to offer proof of the devil’s existence are legion on YouTube. Ms. Beckman counsels people to refrain from obsessing about the devil and to instead focus on Jesus.

“We need to be aware of our enemy, but we need to be much more aware of the Lord and his victory,” she said. “When people come to me and their focus is on, ‘The devil is doing this and the devil is doing that,’ I say, ‘Well, what is God doing in your life? When is the last time, instead of spending an hour watching a video on exorcism, you spent an hour in adoration?’”

•••

If Catholics of a certain age were influenced in their views on the devil by “The Exorcist” in the 1970s, younger generations may experience something similar now, as Hollywood is not shying away from demons.

This fall, “The Exorcist: Believer” hit theaters, the sixth movie in the franchise, its release marking 50 years since the release of the original. Another sequel is already planned for 2025. “The Nun II,” a franchise part of the demon-filled world of “The Conjuring,” came out earlier this year. Then there was “The Pope’s Exorcist,” which dramatized the diaries of Gabriele Amorth, S.S.P., the real-life exorcist and founder of the International Association of Exorcists. The film was co-produced by Eddie Siebert, S.J., a Jesuit priest, and grossed nearly $76 million this spring.

The success of those movies might be a good indicator of just how religious, or at least spiritual, our society remains. “If we’re truly secular, then watching a movie about demons would not be scary,” Dr. Laycock said. “But if we’re scared by a movie about demons, that says they still have a place in our brains, even if we’re not going to church.”

"If we’re scared by a movie about demons, that says they still have a place in our brains, even if we’re not going to church."

Barton T. Geger, S.J., knows a thing or two about how young adults view the devil. In his classes at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Father Geger teaches spiritual discernment and is an expert in angelology and demonology.

Father Geger said that about a third of his students each semester express skepticism about describing the devil as personified evil. They say this is not because they don’t believe in the devil, but they express worry about what focusing on that belief might lead to, such as blaming mental illness on the devil, looking at other religious beliefs as demonic, and condoning the persecution of women.

Father Geger understands those concerns. The devil has been used, and continues to be used, to persecute and harm. But denying the devil’s existence, Father Geger said, is not the right response. Belief in the devil has been an integral part of Christianity for thousands of years, he pointed out. “If a Christian denies the existence of personified evil, then they are denying the unequivocal testimony of Jesus and St. Paul, the New Testament writers, every single one of the church fathers, ecumenical councils, and countless saints and mystics,” Father Geger said.

But what are modern Christians to do with that belief?

Father Geger said that looking to the example of Pope Francis can be helpful, because the reality of the devil is “an integral part of [the pope’s] worldview and how he understands the role of Christians in the modern world.”

If Christians take God’s presence in their lives seriously, discernment is an essential tool to understand the influences and forces that compel us to act certain ways, Father Geger said. That is where the pope’s Jesuit background comes in handy. Ignatius repeatedly stressed the importance of spiritual discernment.

“Discernment of spirits is simply part and parcel of [the pope’s] conviction that God is present and active everywhere in creation,” Father Geger said.

“Is God trying to tell me something? Or is that my own human thought?” he asked, explaining how people might go about discerning their lives. “Or is that the evil one trying to confuse me or discourage me in some way?”

Father Geger, who is working on a book about spiritual discernment, said there are three forces at work in our lives: the good spirit, meaning God and the angels; our own thoughts and desires; and the evil spirit. Each possesses “the ability to influence our interior movements.” And because we face so many decisions over the course of our lives, seeking to understand which of the three spirits has a hold on us at any given moment can be helpful in making decisions.

Even if some of our decisions are influenced by the evil spirit, that does not mean we are possessed. It’s just part of being human. “Every human being has thoughts, words and desires, which are inclined toward God, inclined toward the holy,” Father Geger said. “But we all have a wounded side as well.”

Even if some of our decisions are influenced by the evil spirit, that does not mean we are possessed.

When discerning, Father Geger said, there are several “red flags” that might show our motivations are coming not from God. Decisions that lead to isolation, secrecy and excessive control do not come from the good spirit, for example.

Another sign that something is not from God? Fear.

“The Lord says to us over and over again, ‘Be not afraid,’” Father Geger said. “Fear by its very nature is from the evil spirit.”

Like others I spoke to for this story, Father Geger said that belief in the devil is really an affirmation, in some ways, of the belief that God plays an active role in our lives.

“Ignatius makes a point of saying that Christ sends his angels to defend and help every human being in every place,” Father Geger said. “And in the same way, the devil sends his demons to assault every person in every place.”

Father Geger actually takes comfort in knowing that the devil seeks to attack human beings. “If the devil thinks we’re important enough to attack, that must mean we’re worth something in the eyes of God,” he said.

•••

Back in the Chicago chapel, I still feel unsure what to make of what Father Clemente is telling me. As I glance around the sacristy, I notice a short Mason jar filled with white crystals. Next to it, a cylinder of Morton salt, the kind you might have in your kitchen cabinet. It can’t be, I think to myself. That’s just in the movies, isn’t it?

“What’s that?” I finally say, pointing to the salt.

Father Clemente said the salt is blessed and is used in an older rite of exorcism that is making a comeback. Next to the salt are two small plastic bottles filled with holy oil. Behind that, a drawer labeled simply “Tools.”

Apparently the stuff of movies has some roots in reality.

•••

Dioceses generally have one priest designated by the bishop to serve as an official exorcist, usually assisted by a team of priests, religious and sometimes even laypeople.

The process for seeking an exorcism is not entirely transparent, and it may differ from diocese to diocese. In recent decades, exorcism has undergone something of a professionalization.

The Pope Leo XIII Institute in Mundelein, Ill., for example, describes itself as “a private, non-profit organization [that] has been established for the total education & training of priests in the holy ministry of exorcism and deliverance.” While it does not undertake exorcisms, the ministry offers training and resources for those who do.

Despite that professionalization, much about the world of exorcists remains unknown to the rest of us. Priests appointed by their bishops to perform exorcisms often shy away from making their identities public, in part because of the attention they would attract. Even the Pope Leo XIII Institute states on its website that it is “unable to assist those who are doing research for any reason on the topic of exorcism, healing and deliverance.”

But some dioceses are more upfront about how to procure the help of an exorcist.

The Archdiocese of Washington offers some insight on its website. First, the person seeking the exorcism should consult with a parish priest, who will listen to the person’s story and pray with them. If the priest thinks further action is warranted, he will put the person in touch with the archdiocese’s exorcism team, who will begin an intake process and consider next steps. (For those under 18, a parent must be part of the process at all times.)

In Chicago, an intake form is published on the archdiocese’s website. A person seeking an exorcism must complete the form before meeting with mental health professionals and, perhaps, eventually, an exorcist.

Some dioceses are more upfront about how to procure the help of an exorcist.

The form has the feel of the endless stream of questions common in doctors’ offices, and it indeed asks for appointment availability. But the similarities end there. It asks about the person’s prayer life, if they’re devoted to any particular saints and if they attend Mass. It also asks if the person has been involved with, “or even dabbled with,” a whole list of increasingly common spiritual practices: ouija boards, horoscopes, witchcraft, astrology, Freemasonry, tarot cards, palm reading and Satanism. There are questions about past traumas and behaviors, including sexual abuse, eating disorders and financial challenges.

As we speak, Father Clemente thumbs through a couple of books. One has a black cover. He opens it and shows me prayers for exorcisms, printed in both English and Latin, as well as psalms and Gospel passages. The other one, red, is only in English; it contains prayers of a more recent provenance. There is a debate in the exorcism world, I am told, about whether the old prayers are more efficacious than the new ones—and whether praying them in Latin ticks off the demons even more.

“The devil really cares which language you use, or how you formulate the prayers?” I ask. But then I feel like I’m channeling the skeptical priest from “The Exorcist” and remember what happened to him, and I decide to back off.

Father Clemente reminds me that when it comes to the sacramental life of the church, words do matter. When consecrating the Eucharist, for example, a priest has to recite the prayers correctly. Baptisms have been declared invalid if the priest uses the wrong formula. Why would this be any different?

(As for the Latin versus English debate, he seems to agree that it probably does not make much of a difference. A consecrated host is not somehow more consecrated if the Eucharistic prayer is said in Latin, after all.)

We leave the sacristy and walk into the chapel. It has recently been renovated and golden-hour light streams through the clear windows. The chapel is pretty but unremarkable: beige paint and yellow accent walls behind the wooden altar, about a half dozen pews in total. There are several statues and a handful of relics on display in the back.

Up front, against walls opposite the altar, sit two seemingly ordinary chairs with metal legs, straight backs and the cushions clad in brown vinyl. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them if Father Clemente had not pointed them out. The person seeking an exorcism would sit in one, he tells me, the exorcist in the other. Sometimes the chairs aren’t conducive for the exorcism, so a massage table will be brought out. The rest of the team—an exorcist would not be alone—might be asked to hold down a person exhibiting unusual strength.

Exorcisms take place here, I am told, on a weekly basis. People often require multiple sessions. And demand is only growing. But Father Clemente and others familiar with the church’s exorcism ministry say Catholics should not focus too much on the ancient rite.

“Sunday Mass and confession,” he said, “will do a lot more for you than an exorcism.”

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