Press reports last summer suggested that the French have rediscovered the devil.
Across the Channel there appeared to be at large a variety of “do-it-yourself exorcisms” taking place, alongside a growing band of free market—and unofficial—exorcists who, according to The Times, were advertising their services to the French public at a price, for example, to “evict demons” costs around €100. More noteworthy was the fact that the report also mentioned an increase in exorcisms being carried out by Catholic priests in France. These reports caused The Times to warn prospective British holiday-makers that they needed to be wary of something not covered by their holiday insurance: diabolic activity.
The surprise that such activity is on the rise in France was less remarkable than the discovery for the readers of The Times that, outside of Hollywood films, the rite of exorcism exists and, what’s more, seems to be in use. And for many on this side of the Channel, this news raised the question: does such diabolic activity and the resultant exorcisms occur in today’s Britain?
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting an English priest, Fr. Jeremy Davies, who has been an exorcist for many decades. In 1987, Cardinal Basil Hume, then Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, asked Fr. Davies to become the diocesan exorcist. No doubt Fr. Davis was helped in this new mission by the fact that, in an earlier life, he had been a medical doctor working in the remoter parts of Africa where he had come across many disturbed patients. One of his first positions as a priest was at London’s Westminster Cathedral where Fr. Davies encountered, he says, “all sorts” of people who came to the cathedral, some of whom he says were “possessed or troubled.”
Exorcists, like Fr. Davis, have been the stuff of media fantasy since the 1970s. The 1973 film The Exorcist was a box office smash and initiated a cinematic sub-genre devoted to the subject of exorcism. Indeed, a stage production of the original 1973 film and an exorcism documentary, Deliver Us, both played in London recently, confirming the view that there is an endless fascination on this subject even somewhere as secular as modern Britain.
Needless to say, most films on the subject of exorcism have been inaccurate and sensational. Sitting with Fr. Davies, he looks and sounds neither sensational nor extraordinary. He is an Englishman for whom the word “phlegmatic” seems to have been coined. He discusses, without any sense of the remarkable, a reality that most people would either deny or are too terrified to acknowledge, namely, that not only does the devil exist but that he is as busy as ever.
When asked about his time as an exorcist, Fr. Davies describes his last 30 years in this ministry, in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, as “intense.” For many of these years he was alone in his ministry, the only exorcist appointed for the Westminster diocese. He points out that when he started out as an exorcist the ecclesiastical structures were far from clear. There was an understanding that other priests in the diocese would refer suspected cases of possession to him but, as he says, “It was all a bit haphazard.”
Today, there are at least eight priests who are appointed as exorcists for the Westminster Diocese. Every Catholic priest in London knows whom to contact should he come across someone he suspects of needing the services of the local exorcist.
In these cases of suspected possession the exorcists must first ascertain whether the disturbance presented is medical in origin. For medical professionals, however, the subject of possession is one that elicits incredulity. A consultant psychiatrist, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “In Britain today the general view of the medical establishment when it comes to exorcism is one of deep skepticism. Doctors will probably be fearful of their jobs if it becomes known that they are involved in it.” He added, “If I see a patient claiming to hear the devil, my first impression is that that person is likely to be suffering from a mental or organic illness. Almost invariably this is so.”
The Catholic Church takes the matter of exorcism seriously. Therefore, prudent skepticism, as an initial position is adopted by Church authorities. Furthermore, Canon 1172 of the Code of Canon Law states that no priest can legitimately perform exorcisms unless he has obtained “express permission” from the local bishop.
These checks, both medical and ecclesiastical, are the opposite of what is currently reported as happening across the Channel, however, where a spiritual “free-for-all” is in marked contrast to the sober way in which Fr. Davies discusses the subject. Asked if he is ever frightened by what he encounters, Fr. Davies answers: “If God asks us to do a work then he will protect us.” He is not, however, naïve about his work. He notes that some exorcists he has known have come close to a “mental breakdown.” The ministry, he points out, is exacting. True to his calling, the concerns he expressed were less about his own safety than about his sadness at not always being able to free souls from what oppressed them; his regret recalls the distress experienced by a doctor unable to heal a patient.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the French writer Charles Baudelaire famously wrote: “The devil’s greatest trick is to persuade us that he does not exist.” Over one hundred years later, such thinking is alien to Fr. Davis and the other priest exorcists on this side of the Channel who are very much at work with a firm belief in the continuing need of their ministry.