Battling the Demonic: An Interview with America’s Exorcists
They’ve witnessed the stuff of Hollywood-horror variety, including levitation. They’ve trained under a master exorcist in Rome, and have counseled hundreds of individuals suffering demonic influence. They’re humble, they acknowledge personified evil, but are never afraid, because Christ’s sacrifice has already conquered evil.
While recent popes have reemphasized the importance of exorcism, it is often misunderstood both within the Church and in the secular world. To provide insight into this vital ministry, I’ve recently had the opportunity to speak with two of America’s most experienced exorcists:
Fr. Vince Lampert is the exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He has ten years of experience in dealing with the demonic, and has lectured extensively on the topic, drawing from his expertise and experience.
Fr. Gary Thomas is the exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, California. His 2005 apprenticeship in Rome was the basis for the 2011 thriller, The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins.
Peter LaFave: How did you enter the ministry of exorcism?
Fr. Lampert: This was not something that I sought out. In 2005, I was appointed to this ministry by my bishop because he wanted a priest who believed in the reality of evil, but would not rush to assume that everyone who came to him was actually possessed. An exorcist in many ways is trained to be a skeptic first. I was fortunate to train under an experienced exorcist in Rome during a three month period in 2006 and was able to sit in on 40 exorcisms.
Fr. Thomas: In no way did I ever seek out this position, rather It simply “came” to me. My bishop initially asked my closest friend to become exorcist in February 2005. He was a terrific candidate and would have made a tremendous exorcist because of his academic qualifications and pastoral skills.
However, after discernment, he chose to decline the offer and informed me. I simply said, “I could be the exorcist” and the rest is history. He informed the bishop with my permission and I was sent to Rome, where I took the course on exorcism at the Regina Apostolorum Seminary. During that time, I apprenticed under an Italian exorcist for 3.5 months, during which I had time to pray, study, and learn this ministry.
There are many in the United States today (even Hierarchy in the Catholic Church) who are skeptical about the existence of demons and the ministry of exorcism. As highly trained and experienced exorcists, what do you say to this?
Fr. Lampert: Many people within and outside of the Church view the practice of exorcism as outdated. Yet Scripture contains many accounts of a clash between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. The name “Jesus” means “God saves.” If we deny the reality of evil then we deny the need for Christ to be our Savior.
Fr. Thomas: Read the Gospels: Christ performed exorcisms and the demonic recognized Him.
Have attitudes in the Church shifted in recent years?
Fr. Thomas: There are many Catholics who do not believe in personified evil, i.e. Satan and the demonic realm. In the post-Vatican II Church, the definition of sin became obtuse and the concept of personified evil became vague in many areas of the Church, including Seminaries, where eschatology or its related subjects were no longer emphasized.
However, I do believe that there has been a shift in recent years, of more priests believing in personified evil. Since 2011, the U.S. Catholic Church has quintupled the number of known exorcists, largely because bishops are receiving so many requests for investigations into demonic activity.
Is demonic activity on the rise?
Fr. Lampert: Yes, though the increase in demonic activity is not merely because the Devil has “upped his game,” but also because more people are willing to play his game today, through activities that are opening up doorways to evil in their lives.
Demonic influence is grouped into two categories: ordinary and extraordinary. While ordinary influence can be described as regular temptation, extraordinary influence is divided into four chief categories: infestation, vexation, obsession, and possession. Can you briefly describe characteristics of each?
Fr. Lampert: Infestation describes the presence of evil associated with a specific location or object. Demons can torment humans by unexplained noises which include: footsteps, knocking on walls, clattering of chains, mysterious voices, shouts, and laughter. Infestation can also include displacement of objects, pictures falling off the walls, furniture moving, levitation of objects, and so on.
Vexation is the action by which the devil and demons attack and harass humans physically through cuts or burns, scrapes, stings, bites, blows that leave bruises, swelling and bleeding sores, and incisions of letters in the skin using words or signs that persist for some time or suddenly disappear.
Obsession refers to mental attacks whereby demons assault someone’s external and internal senses. Demons affect the external senses through either horrifying or enticing visions, disturbing noises, chants that are both blasphemous and obscene, and by physical touch. On the internal senses, the imagination can be filled with thoughts or images that are both rationally absurd and terrifying. Because obsession ranges in degree, it is one of the most difficult to assess, more than that of vexation and even demonic possession.
During possession, the devil or evil spirit(s) takes control of a person’s body, during which the person feels powerless to act. The demons can control the entire body; causing the individual to speak, walk, and do obscene gestures. Those who suffer from demonic possession may lose all or part of their consciousness of what is taking place.
Can demons read our thoughts?
Fr. Lampert: Demons do not know what we are thinking. They are intelligent creatures who can use their reason to deduce what we might be thinking or how we might act. God alone knows a person’s mind.
A skeptic might assert that someone undergoing obsession or possession is really suffering mental issues. How do you distinguish?
Fr. Thomas: An exorcist is trained to be a skeptic first. I consult with professionals to rule out the natural causes before moving toward the preternatural ones. I have a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and clinical psychologist with whom I consult with on a case-by-case basis. Everything depends on the circumstances. There are key indicators of demonic involvement: aversion to the sacred, inordinate physical strength, knowledge of hidden things, proficiency in foreign languages previously unknown to the person (including Latin and Greek), foaming at the mouth, and epileptic type body movements without any kind of stimulation.
Fr. Lampert: Before confirming demonic involvement, an exorcist will rely on experts in the mental and medical health fields to assess the individual. They look for every possible physical or mental cause to explain what is taking place. This is the protocol that is followed before an exorcism takes place:
- Obtaining a thorough physical examination by a qualified physician with appropriate specialists consulted as needed.
- Obtaining a thorough psychological examination by a qualified clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
- Taking a “life history” of contact with demons, Satanism, the occult, witchcraft, or any eastern religious practice which cultivates relationships with “gods” and “goddesses”.
- Normalizing the spiritual and sacramental life of the energumen.
- Inventory of the extraordinary signs of possession from the Rite of Exorcism.
- Careful compliance with diocesan legal and canonical processes.
- Composition of a letter to the bishop regarding the need for a major exorcism.
Can you describe the process of an exorcism?
Father Lampert: I will first prepare myself by going to confession, celebrating Mass, and spending time in prayer. I will then determine the location of where the exorcism will take place. It is always in a sacred space of my choosing. These are the steps:
The rite begins with the sprinkling of holy water, followed by recitation of the Litany of Saints, Psalms, Gospels, apostles Creed and renewal of baptismal vows. After several prayers, the troubled individual is shown a crucifix, which represents Christ’s victory over the Devil. Following additional exorcism prayers, the Devil, in the name of Christ, is directly commanded to withdraw from the troubled person.
What are some of the most extreme manifestations of possession that you’ve witnessed?
Fr. Lampert: I have witnessed such things as superhuman strength, eyes rolling back in the head, extreme laughter and roars, supernaturally loud or deep voices, foaming at the mouth, foul odors, dislocation of the jaw, and levitation.
Fr Lampert: Yes, during an exorcism in Rome, the demon became very agitated during the deliverance prayers. The violent thrashing and obscenities continued until everything went calm and the possessed person began to levitate in her chair. This manifestation was done by the demon as an attempt to interrupt the prayer and cause fear to those in the room.
Fr. Thomas: I’ve had individuals exhibiting foreign languages previously unknown to them, violent attacks physically with restraints, snake-like movement, serpent-like facial appearance during deliverance prayers, and violent rejection of the Eucharist.
Do demons believe in the Eucharist?
Fr. Thomas: Absolutely, demons believe in the Real Presence and will often show a dramatic, violent aversion to it.
What brings about demonic involvement? What should be avoided?
Fr. Thomas: Ouija boards, dark magic, séances, violent video games, the Charley Challenge, tarot cards, any devices that can muster some kind of spirit in any way that circumvents God
Fr. Lampert: People may think these things are just fun and entertaining but the truth is they are dabbling with evil and can get themselves into trouble.
Fr. Thomas: Pornography and drugs can also be open doorways to the demonic, especially certain drugs such as meth and cocaine. In some cases, curses can be placed on these in order to make them even more addictive.
Curses, spells, satanic rituals, and black magic: do these occur today or are they merely old superstitions?
Fr. Thomas: Yes, there are people who know how to perform spells and magic of this kind.
Fr. Lampert: These things are all real. I believe they are only effective if we are weak in our commitment to God. We can’t control what another person does even if they wish us ill will. We can render their actions meaningless by putting on the armor of God.
How long does a possession last? Does one exorcism get the job done?
Fr. Thomas: Possessions can last years or even entire lifetimes, depending on the individual’s situation and lifestyle condition. One exorcism rarely gets the “job done” because there are usually several demons in an organized hierarchy.
Lengthy exorcisms sound exhausting; how do you unwind after something like that?
Fr. Lampert: I’ll find the nearest Dairy Queen!
You mentioned earlier that the decline in morality of society accompanies an increase in demonic activity. In today’s society what are the key indicators of this? For instance, is there something diabolical about abortion?
Fr. Thomas: Abortion is a doorway to the demonic because it involves the destruction of an innocent human being. The new law in California which legalizes assisted suicide is also a doorway for the same reason. This decline in morality is growing rapidly and provides the opportunity for Satan to have a foothold in a family’s life. I do not believe that most people who are believers in “choice” realize this. That is part of the seduction of Satan who will disguise his presence in these choices.
Fr. Lampert: Anything that attacks human life has to be viewed as evil, for the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. With that said one must always distinguish between evil as an action of our own free will and evil that is the result of demonic activity.
Can other inanimate objects become infested?
Fr. Thomas: Absolutely. A couple of years ago, an acquaintance of mine purchased a statue figurine of a fairy at a New Age book store. After experiencing several strange disturbances at her home, I advised the family to dispose of everything they had purchased as that specific store. While throwing out this statue, it shattered, producing a miniature satanic charm of a headless priest with his hands glued to an altar. I had never seen something so creepy and grotesque. After the objects had been blessed and disposed of, the disturbances ceased.
Do you caution against Eastern meditation such as yoga?
Fr. Lampert: The benefit of yoga for purely exercising is not the issue. What is concerning is the calling upon of energies, spirits, or forces when doing these practices.
Fr. Thomas: When someone doing yoga acknowledges and calls upon spirits or energies attached to certain exercises, this creates serious problems. I know this for fact because I have had people who are fervent yoga users come to me with problems when they have given homage to the gods attached to the movements of the yoga.
Are you ever afraid?
Fr. Thomas: No, it must be a grace because I am never afraid. I am humble and very respectful of personified evil, because without Our Lord, I do not stand a chance but with Him, I have nothing to fear.
In closing, what is the best defense against the forces of evil?
Fr. Thomas: There are four ordinary means of protection against the Evil One: a prayer life, a faith life, a moral life, and a sacramental life. Do those and you will build up the armor of Faith against the forces of Hell.
Fr. Lampert: The best defense against evil is for us to devote ourselves to the things of God and to think about the positive aspects of life. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” [Philippians 4:8].