“There are many more exorcisms than people think”

Recent case of girl in Burgos reveals extent to which practice still goes on in Spain

The church of San Joaquín in Valladolid, where a young woman from Burgos was exorcized.
The church of San Joaquín in Valladolid, where a young woman from Burgos was exorcized.MARTA CACHO

“Who are you? Satan? Beelzebub? The devil incarnate?” The young woman did not answer the exorcist’s questions, so he concluded that she was possessed, and the exorcism sessions began.

The scene is recorded in the statements the young woman gave to a Burgos courthouse. Her story begins in 2012, when she was still under 18, and had begun to suffer anorexia.

The illness drove her to attempt suicide, and her torment was made worse by her very religious parents, who came to believe that their daughter was possessed by the devil.

The girl told them that “she had a devil inside of her” who was punishing her. That was when her parents decided to have her exorcized.

There were 13 sessions in all. The walls of the convent of San Joaquín in Valladolid helped assuage “the fear and powerlessness” she felt watching her parents and Father José Hernández praying for the devil to leave her body. She was tied up, with crosses positioned over her head.

Paul VI used to say that one of the devil’s victories is to make people believe he doesn’t exist

The story saw the light recently after regional daily Diario de Burgos revealed details about a police investigation into the case. The probe had been triggered by a complaint filed by the young woman’s uncles and aunts.

That same day, December 5, the archbishop of Burgos issued a statement saying that “the young woman’s suicide attempt was not the result of the exorcisms practiced on her.”

The note acknowledged that the exorcisms had indeed taken place, and defended them as “a religious practice maintained as part of the Church’s tradition, as a right available to all the faithful.”

Even the exorcism of children is sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Those who carry out the practice say “there are many more than people think.”

“When a minor is clearly possessed, which can and does happen, the parents need to expressly consent to the exorcism prayer,” explains an exorcist from Madrid who declined to have his name appear in print.

The media harassment to which exorcists have been subjected in recent days has made them extremely cautious, and bishops have issued orders for exorcists not to grant interviews.

The exorcist José Antonio Fortea in 2008.
The exorcist José Antonio Fortea in 2008.cristóbal Manuel

But this particular exorcist says the practice is not a thing of the past. “It is our daily bread,” he says, quoting the Lord’s Prayer.

There are around 15 priests in Spain with Church authorization to conduct exorcisms. “There is oversight of how many get performed, but no register,” said sources at the Madrid Archdiocese, which received eight new exorcists last year.

These priests follow the guidelines set forth in the Roman Ritual for Exorcism, which does not make any specific recommendations for children. The ceremony is the same regardless of age.

The first step is to identify the possessed individual. “You have to be very careful about this,” says the Madrid exorcist. “There are illnesses than can have similar symptoms. Paul VI used to say that one of the devil’s victories is to make people believe he doesn’t exist.”

Father José Antonio Fortea, who is also an exorcist, admits that “possession shares some traits with schizophrenia,” and insists that possessions can only be concluded from cases with no medical explanation.

Symptoms that someone may be possessed include “a propensity for unjustified acts of evil, an aversion to holy things, speaking in arcane tongues ...”

Fortea has treated a number of minors with these symptoms, although such cases are a minority. Some of his experiences are available in his book, Summa Daemoniaca.

One time he treated an 11-year-old boy who “keep using foul language, spat on me repeatedly, and laughed at my prayers.” During one of the sessions, he says the boy grabbed a handful of hair from his head and coldly said: “Now you’re going to watch me yank it out.”

These days there is probably more demonic activity than at other times, because we are living in a paganized world” Spanish exorcist

The book offers insights into some of the hundreds of cases he has seen, and offers an handbook for exorcists based on this experience.

The liturgy includes wearing a purple stole, and using a crucifix and specially exorcized holy water, experts explain. Salt is also blessed, and a small amount is dissolved in the water.

The session begins by casting the holy water around and praying for the saints to intercede. The priest must not be alone for reasons “of human good sense,” reveals the Madrid exorcist. More prayers follow, then the crucifix is shown to the tormented soul, and the sign of the cross made over them. The devil is told to leave the body: “I declare you anathema, Satan, enemy of human salvation; recognize the justice and kindness of The Lord Our Father.”

The patients must also pray to God and mortify themselves, the ritual says.

Sessions can go on for years if necessary. Father Fortea writes in his book that his most serious case was a young woman he names Marta, for whom he prayed for five whole years.

“She was a university student who began showing signs of possession: trances, convulsions, a perfect understanding of languages she did not speak, an aversion to holy things.” The devils used Marta to inform Fortea that they had been invoked by a young man who was obsessed with her.

“I don’t think this is a taboo subject, any Christian takes the devil’s existence for granted,” says Félix María Arocena, a professor of liturgical theology at Navarre University. “Jesus Christ was the first exorcist.”

No secret in Italy

A. N. C.
In contrast with the Spanish Church’s secrecy on the subject, the Vatican has a much more open attitude: the Ritual for Exorcism is available online, its own exorcists’ names are public, and this year it granted legal status to the International Exorcist Association.

Last October, 300 exorcists gathered in Rome for a summit and the pope himself asked them to "demonstrate the Church's love for those who suffer from the work of the Malignant One."

Meanwhile, the archdiocese of Milan has had such a surge in demand for exorcisms that it doubled its staff to 12 two years ago, and created an emergency hotline for exorcism requests.

The gospel includes several references to Christ as a miracle worker who evicted the devil from his Jewish compatriots: “When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.” (Luke, 8:27).

Those were the first references to exorcisms. Later, the Church Fathers spoke of the “energúmenos,” Greek for “possessed.”

Christian faith is based on the belief that Jesus Christ redeemed humankind from sin and the devil through his own death, and Arocena says exorcism never disappeared.

Other exorcists consulted for this story agree: “These days there is probably more demonic activity than at other times, because we are living in a paganized world.”

The ceremony has not changed much throughout the ages, explains Arocena, who denies violence is ever used. The young woman from Burgos testified that she was sat on to prevent her from running away. “The possessed one is not tied up unless he or she consents,” says one exorcist. “Sometimes it is necessary for the safety of the priest and those present.”

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