In 1886, Pope Leo XIII added the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to the prayers he had already ordered to be said after the Low Mass in 1884. The origin of the prayer is subject to much speculation, particularly about whether or not Leo received a locution with the voices of Jesus and the devil. Regardless of the exact details of this alleged event, which some deny for being unsubstantiated, there are some historical testimonies to the fact that a mystical experience moved the Pope to compose the prayer and to have it said daily throughout the world.
On June 29, 1972, Pope Bl. Paul VI, who stopped the recitation of the prayer, seemed to confirm an element’s of Leo’s prophecy, stating in his homily in St. Peter’s Basilica that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” This built upon Leo’s sense that the devil would have extraordinary influence in the twentieth century, including within the Church. Paul continued his reflection on the influence of the devil on November 15 of that same year in a general audience entitled “Deliver Us from Evil,” arguing that “one of the major needs [of the Church] is defense from that evil we call the Devil.” Pope Paul, referencing Ephesians 6:11-12, argued that we need to withstand the evil one with the armor of God.
Was a large part of the smoke of Satan entering the Church our denial of his influence and a laying down of our spiritual arms to confront him? For too long we have denied or overlooked the influence of the devil on our lives and the Church. Therefore, we have grown lax in seeking the Lord’s power to overcome his opposition. Praying for this deliverance is central to Christian prayer, as we see even at the end of the Our Father, which has been translated, “deliver us from the evil one.” After being tempted, Christ commanded the devil, “away with you Satan!” and cast out many demons in his ministry. Our Lord took spiritual warfare seriously and recognized our need for deliverance, as he brought “freedom to captives.” He also gave power and authority to his disciples to exorcise: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons” (Mk 16:17; see Luke 9:1). This power has been overlooked of late, as belief in the influence of the evil one now appears superstitious to many.
Take the example of exorcism prayer in the Rite of Baptism as part of the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, promulgated in 1969 by Paul VI. It is fascinating that the Associated Press quoted Bl. Paul as questioning the revised prayer in the audience I referenced above (though these lines have been removed from the official text). The AP article reads: “In his speech. Pope Paul appeared to regret that in the new rite of baptism, which he approved three years ago, less emphasis is given to exorcism. This is the part in which the priest orders Satan to get out of the new Christian. ‘I don’t know whether this is realistic,’ he said of the revised exorcism.” In the audience, Paul recognized both the increased influence on the devil and that the Church had softened her response.
In my opinion, the “Prayer of Exorcism” found in the revised rite, is not an exorcism at all. Here is the text:
Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her). We ask this through Christ our Lord.
The first sentence is simply a declarative statement on what Christ accomplished. It then asks that the child be set free from original sin and given grace, but says nothing about praying for the child to be delivered from the influence of the enemy, let alone commanding the enemy to depart.
In paragraph 1673, the Catechism describes exorcism and its relation to Baptism: “When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism.” What is so striking about the exorcism prayer in the new Rite of Baptism is that is does not ask that the one being baptized “be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion.”
Contrast this with the exorcism from the traditional rite of Baptism:
I cast you out, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Depart and stay far away from this servant of God, N. For it is the Lord Himself who commands you, accursed and doomed spirit, He who walked on the sea and reached out His hand to Peter as he was sinking. So then, foul fiend, recall the curse that decided your fate once for all. Indeed, pay homage to the living and true God, pay homage to Jesus Christ, His Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Keep far from this servant of God, N, for Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, has freely called him (her) to His holy grace and blessed way and to the waters of baptism.
The lack of exorcism in the new rite, was lauded by some, such as Vincent Ryan, OSB:
The catechetical value of some of its rites and formulas was doubtful…. How could one justify the strongly-worded exorcisms when applied, not to converts from paganism, but to newly-born infants? …
In the old baptismal service the exorcisms loomed very large. They have now been reduced to one moderately-worded formula. No longer is the Evil One addressed directly (‘I adjure thee, Satan, …’). Instead, we have a prayer addressed to God, acknowledging what he has done for his people.
Fr. Ryan questioned the need for exorcism prayers for infants, but suggested that it may be helpful for converts. What then do we see happening in the case of someone converting as an adult from another religion? The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), promulgated in 1971, contains a series of exorcisms that occur periodically from the Rite of Acceptance to the Scrutinies of Lent. Analyzing the prayers shows mixed results. Some meet the definition of an exorcism given by the Catechism, but a majority follow Fr. Ryan’s concern for catechetical instruction over actual spiritual warfare.
The “Introduction” to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) describes the exorcisms that occur within the Catechumenate in the following ways: They are “addressed directly to God,” and “draw the attention … to the real nature of Christian life…” (90). Further, during Lent the elect “are freed from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil. They receive new strength in the midst of their spiritual journey and they open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Saviour” (131).
The strongest of the many exorcism prayers within RCIA is contained within the “optional rites” section of the Rite of Acceptance, and therefore would not necessarily be used for every catechumen. The prayer states: “By the breath of your mouth, O Lord, drive away the spirits of evil. Command them to depart, for your kingdom has come among us.” This prayer, though stronger than the exorcism of Baptism, serves as a petition, not a command to the demons to depart.
The next set of exorcism prayers are the minor exorcisms found within the Catechumenate proper. Out of the 11 options, the following prayer provides a good example of their character:
God of power, who promised us the Holy Spirit through Jesus your Son, we pray to you for these catechumens, who present themselves before you. Protect them from the spirit of evil and guard them against error and sin, so that they may become the temple of your Holy Spirit. Confirm what we profess in faith, so that our words may not be empty, but full of the grace and power by which your Son has freed the world. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen (§94, Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults).
Although this is a good and even beautiful prayer, I wonder (like Bl. Paul VI) whether it would suffice to break someone away from the domination of sin, false worship, and demonic influence? There are also two options for exorcism prayers for each of the three Scrutinies of Lent. These prayers are a bit stronger at points—“defend them from the power of Satan”—but generally maintain a catechetical and petitionary character. As in the revised rite of Baptism, we do not see in these prayers the full exercise of the authority given to the Church by Christ over unclean spirits.
As we see the influence of the evil one increasing in our culture every day, we cannot stand by idly. We must take up our spiritual arms again. Returning to the scriptural passage quoted by Bl. Paul above, Ephesians 6: 11-12, we can see how St. Paul taught us to withstand the attacks of the enemy:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
How should we put on this armor? We must surround ourselves with prayer, remaining in the presence of the Lord and strong in our faith. Beyond that, without giving in to undo fear or obsession, we should regularly pray for deliverance from any influence that the enemy may have over us. We should pray regularly the prayer to the great defender of the Church, St. Michael, as Pope St. John Paul II advised us: “Although today this prayer is no longer recited at the end of the Eucharistic celebration, I invite everyone not to forget it, but to recite it to get to be helped in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.”
There are also many other effective prayers of deliverance. The one copied below is an example of taking up the authority that Christ gave us, through the power of his Holy Name, to withstand evil spirits.
Prayer Against Every Evil
Spirit of our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Most Holy Trinity, Immaculate Virgin Mary, angels, archangels, and saints of heaven, descend upon me. Please purify me, Lord, mold me, fill me with yourself, use me.
Banish all the forces of evil from me, destroy them, vanish them, so that I can be healthy and do good deeds.
Banish from me all spells, witchcraft, black magic, malefice, ties, maledictions, and the evil eye; diabolic infestations, oppressions, possessions; all that is evil and sinful, jealously, perfidy, envy; physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, diabolical aliments.
Burn all these evils in hell, that they may never again touch me or any other creature in the entire world.
I command and bid all the power who molest me—by the power of God all powerful, in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary—to leave me forever, and to be consigned into the everlasting hell, where they will be bound by Saint Michael the archangel, Saint Gabriel, Saint Raphael, our guardian angels, and where they will be crushed under the heel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “St. Michael” painted by Raphael in 1504-5.