Exorcism (from the Greek word, exorkismos meaning binding by oath) is the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
The practice is ancient and part of the belief system of many cultures and religions. Depending on the spiritual beliefs of the person performing the exorcism, it can be done by causing the entity to swear an oath, by performing an elaborate ritual, or simply by commanding it to depart in the name of a higher power.
In the 15th century, Catholic exorcists were both priestly and not ordained, since every Christian was considered as having the power to command demons and drive them out in the name of Christ. These exorcists used the Benedictine formula “Vade retro satana” (“Step back, Satan”) around this time. Expulsion by adjuration was the primary meaning of exorcism, and when, as in Christian usage, this adjuration is in the name of God or of Christ, exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite.
The use of protective means against the real, or supposed, molestations of evil spirits follows from the belief in their existence, and is, and has been always, a feature of ethnic religions. The Egyptians believed certain diseases and various other evils were caused by demons, and believed in the use of magical charms and incantations for banishing or dispelling them. The dead more particularly needed to be well fortified with magic in order to be able to safely travel to the underworld. Babylonian magic was largely bound up with medicine, certain diseases being attributed to some kind of demonic possession, and exorcism being considered easiest, if not the only, way of curing them. Formulas of adjuration were employed, in which some god or goddess, or some group of deities were invoked to conjure away the evil one and repair the trouble they had caused.
At an early age the practice was introduced into the Church of exorcising catechumens as a preparation for the Sacrament of Baptism. This did not imply that they were considered to be obsessed, but merely that they were, in consequence of original sin (and of personal sins in case of adults), subject more or less to the power of the devil, whose “works” or “pomps” they were called upon to renounce, and from whose dominion the grace of baptism was about to deliver them.
Exorcism in this connection is a symbolical anticipation of one of the chief effects of the sacrament of regeneration; and since it was used in the case of children who had no personal sins, St. Augustine could appeal to it against the Pelagians as implying clearly the doctrine of original sin. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Procatechesis 14) gives a detailed description of baptismal exorcism, from which it appears that anointing with exorcised oil formed a part of this exorcism in the East. The only early Western witness which treats unction as part of the baptismal exorcism is that of the Arabic Canons of Hippolytus (n. 19, 29). The Exsufflatio, or out-breathing of the demon by the candidate, which was sometimes part of the ceremony, symbolized the renunciation of his works and pomps, while the Insufflatio, or in-breathing of the Holy Ghost, by ministers and assistants, symbolised the infusion of sanctifying grace by the sacrament. Most of these ancient ceremonies have been retained by the Church to this day in her rite for solemn baptism.
According to Catholic belief demons or fallen angels retain their natural power, as intelligent beings, of acting on the material universe, and using material objects and directing material forces for their own wicked ends; and this power, which is in itself limited, and is subject, of course, to the control of Divine providence, is believed to have been allowed a wider scope for its activity in the consequence of the sin of mankind. Hence places and things as well as persons are naturally liable to diabolical infestation, within limits permitted by God, and exorcism in regard to them is nothing more that a prayer to God, in the name of His Church, to restrain this diabolical power supernaturally, and a profession of faith in His willingness to do so on behalf of His servants on earth.
The chief things formally exorcised in blessing are water, salt, oil, and these in turn are used in personal exorcisms, and in blessing or consecrating places (e.g.churches) and objects (e.g. altars, sacred vessels, church bells) connected with public worship, or intended for private devotion. Holy water, the sacramental with which the ordinary faithful are most familiar, is a mixture of exorcised water and exorcised salt; and in the prayer of blessing, God is besought to endow these material elements with a supernatural power of protecting those who use them with faith against all the attacks of the devil. This kind of indirect exorcism by means of exorcised objects is an extension of the original idea; but it introduces no new principle, and it has been used in the Church from the earliest ages.
By the late 1960s, Roman Catholic exorcisms were seldom performed in the United States, but by the mid-1970s, popular film and literature revived interest in the ritual, with thousands claiming demonic possession. Maverick priests took advantage of the increase in demand and performed exorcisms with little or no official sanction. The exorcisms that they performed were, according to Contemporary American Religion, “clandestine, underground affairs, undertaken without the approval of the Catholic Church and without the rigorous psychological screening that the church required. In subsequent years, the Church took more aggressive action on the demon-expulsion front.” In 2014, the Roman Catholic organization, International Association of Exorcists, received the approval of the Vatican.