Like everyone in America, it seemed, I saw The Exorcist in 1973. I went to Chicago to see it when it first came out. I had read William Blatty’s novel in 1971, which was scary enough. But seeing that little girl’s head spin around (it was a puppet), and her body rise from the bed (wires and a harness), and the green projectile vomiting (pea soup) were so vivid that although I knew the story the impact of those scenes absolutely blew me away. My date and I were scared to death. We ran to the car when we left the theater. That’s what most of us know about exorcism. We know the movie.
We understand exorcism as a little used religious rite but the concept rarely enters public discourse these days. That’s because it’s medieval. It is an antidote to demonic possession and we don’t often frame problems in terms of demonic possession these days. I have not encountered it, nor suspected it come to think, in my entire life. I’m talking about demons jumping in and taking over some unsuspecting human being like the little girl in the movie living with her mother in Georgetown, making her life a living hell. We see people living what we imagine as a living hell but we now attribute such misfortune to mental illness or horrible coincidence and not Beelzebub, Prince of Darkness. Am I wrong here? Has demonic possession been popping up in your neighborhood?
So I was quite surprised when the Bishop of the Springfield Catholic Dioceses, Thomas Paprocki, announced plans for, in words taken from his press release "Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.” He certainly created a buzz by choosing to invoke the rite of exorcism on the day that the Governor of Illinois signed the Marriage Equality Act which will allow same sex marriage throughout the state in June of this year. It got people’s attention in Illinois and beyond. In researching reaction to his plans I realized once again that the Catholic Church is a big institution. It harbors within it a wide range of opinion and thought.
Thomas Villareal, something of a renegade Catholic monk writing in the Los Angeles Times, said this about the Springfield Bishop’s service at the ornate Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception church a few blocks from the state Capitol:
“(As) outrageous –and perhaps even a bit comical –as many might find the use of the rite of exorcism to make a political statement in the culture wars, the entire body of U.S. Catholic bishops has, in fact, implemented a far less theatrical, yet ever more serious plan in their attempt to sully the love and commitment of same-sex couples, along with their civil marriage equality, in the minds and hearts of lay Catholics. This is no laughing matter.”
On the other end of the spectrum is CatholicCulture.org, a non-profit with a web site run by Trinity Communications. The board and officers of Trinity Communications are Catholic laymen faithful to the Magisterium of the Church who seek to enrich faith, strengthen the Church, and form Catholic culture according to the mind of the Church. They claim to “draw special inspiration from the outstanding Catholic vision and wisdom of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and continue to follow the lead and guidance of Pope Francis.” Here’s what they say about Wednesday afternoon’s exorcism.
“Trained as a canon lawyer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki understands the prudence of working within the system of Church law. He is not by nature a “lone ranger”—not the sort of prelate who would ignore the rules and rubrics to make his point. Still, while other American bishops have reacted to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage with protests and press statements, Bishop Paprocki has taken one long stride further, announcing plans to lead prayers of exorcism in the cathedral of his Springfield, Illinois diocese. Exorcism isn’t something the Church takes lightly. Priests are strongly discouraged from using the ritual unless there is strong evidence of demonic activity. So Bishop Paprocki is telling us that he regards the acceptance of same-sex marriage as something far more serious than a matter of mistaken judgment; he sees it as evidence that Satan is twisting the thoughts of legislators, and presumably of the people they represent.
Satan, twisting the thoughts of legislators and the people they represent? The people they represent? That’s us, for God’s sake. Satan, at work in us? Have you felt funny lately? I feel fairly normal and in control.
As an English major I love words and I take them seriously. I think speakers and writers deserve to have their words read and understood. I read most all the newspaper accounts of Wednesday’s exorcism but more important to me is the Bishop’s Homily, which you can find printed in its entirety if you work at it. I don’t have time to give you the link. In his own words Paprocki denied he was exorcising demons from individuals. Let me quote him directly. These are excerpts, taken from his address to the faithful, with omissions indicated by three periods. I know that you know it’s always better to read the whole thing for context, but it’s long.
“God is calling me to speak out and conduct these prayers.... Our prayers at this time are prompted by the fact that the Governor of Illinois today is signing into Illinois law the redefinition of civil marriage, introducing not only an unprecedented novelty into our state law, but also institutionalizing an objectively sinful reality.
... the meaning of the term ‘exorcism’ in the title of this prayer service is not so readily apparent and requires some explanation. ...It should also be noted that the bill that the Governor is signing today is called the ‘Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,’ which purportedly provides that ‘the Act does not interfere with any religious beliefs about marriage.’ Perhaps a large part of the negative reaction is because most people don't know what the Church teaches about exorcism, since they get their misleading information and sensational ideas on this mainly from Hollywood. The fact is that a ‘minor exorcism’ takes place in every Baptism and Confirmation ceremony when we renounce Satan and all his works and empty promises. This prayer service will be along those lines. I'm not saying that anyone involved in the redefinition of marriage is possessed by the devil, which, if that were the case, would require the remedy of a ‘Major Exorcism,’ but all of us are certainly subject to the devil's evil influences and in need of protection and deliverance from evil. Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture, both in the state and in the Church. These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye, which is why they are so deceptive.
... . Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project (this is a mere instrument), but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ The ...’father of lies’ comes from the Gospel of John (8:44), where Jesus refers to the devil as "a liar and the father of lies."
... Since the legal redefinition of marriage is contrary to God's plan, those who contract civil same-sex marriage are culpable of serious sin. Politicians responsible for enacting civil same-sex marriage legislation are morally complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin. We must pray for forgiveness of these sins and deliverance from this evil which has penetrated our state and our Church. The Church stands ready to extend God's mercy to those who confess their sins with true repentance and a firm purpose of amendment in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We must also affirm the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.’ The Church loves homosexual persons and looks upon them with compassion, offering assistance ...to live in accord with the virtue of chastity.”
No need to elaborate further on what the Bishop was all about on Wednesday except to say that although he may not be saying Michael Madigan is possessed by the devil if he did he would not be the first to do so. But all in all, I think his words speak for themselves.
Far and away the best words to come out of the whole deal are the words that hardly anyone understood. After delivering the homily in English, Bishop Paprocki read the rite of exorcism in Latin. I also looked that up. It’s no small deal. But if you’re doing an exorcism in the Catholic Church, it demands being done properly. Too bad they didn’t provide the English translation, although maybe they did. I wasn’t there. The English translation of the Rite of Exorcism is a treasure trove of words, quotable as hell, forgive the pun. I read it side by side with the Latin. The Latin says it in less words than the English. But it's the rich language in the rite that so strikes me. Let me give you the highlights of that piece, issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 18th 1890. Pope Leo recommended the exorcism, a prayer, be delivered standing. Get ready. It’s a doozy.
(Can’t you just see Max Van Sydow in the movie, playing the heavy weight priest they brought in from a dig in Iraq to do battle with Lucifer? It was like a religious Rocky movie at that point. There he was, standing by Regan’s bed, commanding Satan, tossing holy water that burned her skin, invoking the power of God. What a scene. Picture if you can Bishop Paprocki saying these words in Latin. Is there video?) What follows are excerpts again, same deal with the periods and omissions. Here goes.
O most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies, St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle and in our wrestling against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places…
Fight the battles of the Lord today with the Army of the Blessed Angels, as once thou didst fight against Lucifer, the first in pride…But that great dragon was cast out, the old serpent, who is called the devil and satan, who seduces the whole world. …
On men depraved in mind and corrupt in heart the wicked dragon pours out like a most foul river, the poison of his villainy, a spirit of lying, impiety and blasphemy, and the deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices…
His most crafty enemies have engulfed the Church, the Spouse of the Immaculate Lamb, with sorrows; they have drenched her with wormwood; on all her desirable things they have laid their wicked hands…
Offer our prayers in the sight of the Most High, so that the mercies of the Lord may quickly come to our aid, that thou mayest seize the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and satan and that having bound him, thou mayest cast him into the bottomless pit, so that he may no more seduce the nations…
We cast you out, every unclean spirit, every satanic power, every onslaught of the infernal adversary, every legion, every diabolical group and sect, in the name and by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. …No longer dare, cunning serpent, to deceive the human race, to persecute God's Church, to strike God's elect and to sift them as wheat. For the Most High God commands you …God the Father commands you. The Son of God commands you. God the Holy Ghost commands you. Christ, the Eternal Word of God made flesh, commands you, … The exalted Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, commands you, who in her lowliness crushed your proud head from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception… The blood of martyrs and the devout prayers of all holy men and women command you...
Thus, cursed dragon, and you, diabolical legions, we adjure you by the living God, …cease deceiving human creatures and pouring out to them the poison of eternal damnation; cease harming the Church and hindering her liberty.
Begone, Satan, inventor and master of all deceit…Stoop beneath the all-powerful Hand of God; tremble and flee when we invoke the Holy and terrible Name of Jesus…we beseech Thee to deliver us by Thy power from all the tyranny of the infernal spirits, from their snares, their lies and their furious wickedness...
From the snares of the devil…Deliver us, O Lord…That Thou may crush down all enemies of Thy Church…
Wow. Begone, Satan. Stoop…tremble and flee when we invoke the terrible Name of Jesus. That is the language, the words, the core of exorcism. It is just not the Jesus I’m familiar with.
And it is still not clear whom the Bishop was driving the demon from on Wednesday. Was it Illinois, its legislature, its citizens? I can’t tell. Suffice to say some Catholic leaders such as Paprocki are very upset with Illinois lawmakers, and in turn us who support this law, while other church leaders and the majority of Catholic Church members remain supportive of those they love and all who are gay, and wish for them the same opportunity for love, family and acceptance as heterosexuals enjoy.
What do they think will happen come June when the law takes effect? I think I know what will happen. Gay people will marry one another and have their relationship blessed by God and a church community. Joy will break out on those occasions, as it does at all weddings. Other gay people will choose to enter into civil unions, while many gay people will continue to simply live together. Still other gay people will seek love and relationship or they will choose to live alone. They will choose what is best for them among all those options. Take the adjective “gay” out of those statements and come June the same will be true for every adult in Illinois.
Some of those gay marriages will take place in my church, First United Church of Christ in Ottawa, an open and affirming congregation which worked for and welcomes this new law in Illinois, just as we welcome gay people, and everyone, to be members of our church. If they don’t want to use our church basement for the reception the couples will find a hall (probably not the Knights of Columbus), a florist, a bakery, a caterer to help them. If you’re lucky you may be invited. Quite possibly a member of your family is gay and longs to one day marry. Perhaps it will be a neighbor or close friend. As the stigma continues to fall from being gay we realize how many individuals we know and love that are positively affected by this inclusive piece of legislation. I think it is something to celebrate.
This same phenomena, weddings between people who love one another regardless of gender, has been taking place in Massachusetts for ten years. In Iowa for four. The sky has not fallen. Family has not deteriorated. In fact, family has been created. Gay marriage will come to Illinois and you will not be threatened. You may not notice. We can bring the rhetoric down any time now. Cunning serpent, cursed dragon, diabolical legion? The deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices? Come on. It’s going to be OK.