It has been brought to my attention that some Claretians in certain Major Organisms engage themselves in the practice of exorcism, Deliverance of Spirits and similar kinds of activities dealing with esoteric phenomena without due authorization from the Church and the Congregation. Exaggerated forms of charismatic prayers also tend to have recourse to acts of deliverance from the devil without proper discernment. This letter intends to give some guidelines regarding the exercise of these ministries. However, this letter considers as valuable the priestly practice of praying over the sick and the suffering, and blessing people in various situations as long as they are part of the legitimate pastoral care of the people accepted in the local Church.
1.- Ministry of healing the sick and the possessed
Jesus came to proclaim the good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and set the oppressed free (Lk 4:18). During his public life, Jesus healed the sick and the possessed, and taught us to pray to the Father to “deliver us from the evil one” (Mt 6:13). Mark states that when the disciples went out to preach the Good News everywhere, the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by signs (Mk 16:20). Healing the sick and the possessed are integral part of the mission of the Church.
Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” mentions about the Christian struggle against the devil, the prince of evil (no. 159). The pope further says, “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down out guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities” (no. 161).
The Church has clear norms about the ministry of exorcism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the following, “The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” (No. 1673).
It is through a life conformed to Jesus by cultivating virtues and leading a holy life that we should combat the evil one. Besides, it is dangerous and self-destructive to venture into exorcisms and pretend to combat evil forces without due preparation and a deep prayer.
The code of Canon Law states, “No one may lawfully exorcise the possessed without the special and express permission of the local Ordinary. This permission is to be granted by the local Ordinary only to a priest who is endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life. (Can. 1172 §1 & 2). It was also clarified that the Religious Ordinary (Major Superior) cannot authorize a religious to carry out exorcism. (Letter of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of September 29, 1985 to all the Ordinaries, Cf. AAS 77 -1985- 1169-1170).
I am concerned when I come across our brothers who naively venture into the practice of exorcism and healing, and imitate the dramatic performance of evangelical pastors who act on their own presumed authority.
2.- Claret and the ministry of healing the sick and the possessed
Our congregation was founded to seek in all things the glory of God, the sanctification of our members and the salvation of people throughout the world according to our missionary charism in the Church (CC 2). We have the example of Claret who imitated Christ closely and strived to proclaim the word of God by using all means that were available to him. Claret narrates in his Autobiography how God used him to heal people from illnesses of body and soul (Aut. 170-182). However, when he found that the healing activities were impeding him from dedicating himself to the proclamation of the Gospel, he opted to go for missions rather than settling himself in the parish with his healing gifts (Cf. Aut 174).
Claret, who was duly authorized to do exorcisms, narrated many cases of fictitious possessions and warned to move very cautiously (Cf. Aut 183-191). From his experience, our Founder noticed that only one out of thousand could be called a genuine case of possession (Aut 183). Seeing the fictitious nature of possessions and the complexity of the matter, he made the following decision: “It is far more necessary for you to be casting the devil out of souls in mortal sin than it is from bodies, even when there really are demons there. I thought that even this might be a snare of the devil, so I resolved to give up exorcisms and try another approach” (Aut 184). We should learn the pastoral wisdom and prudence from the Founder when our missionaries have to handle cases of “possessions” which are abundant in some cultures.
3.- Causes of concern about exorcisms and healing ministries in our missions
We have had unfortunate experiences of missionaries in the Congregation who “discovered” their personal charism of healing and driving out devils without proper discernment and ran into many troubles. There are some common elements that should caution us against deliverance ministries which prop up like mushrooms in some cultures. The following are some of the common characteristics of these false deliverance ministries:
- Lack of Authorization. The preacher carries out exorcism in a protestant fashion without due Ecclesiastical permission from the Bishop and approval from the Major Superior of the Religious Order.
- Lack of Discernment. There is no discernment nor expertise to distinguish among fake possessions, hypochondria, psychiatric cases, psychosomatic issues, and evil possessions. Everything is treated in a naïve way in the name of “faith healing” and often hypochondriacs and psychosomatics find quick relief.
- Inexperienced and young preachers. Exorcisms are normally carried out by experienced and spiritually adept priests who are duly authorized by the Church. They are to live very austere and prayerful lives because Jesus himself told his disciples that only by prayer and fasting such devils can be eradicated (Cf. Mt 17:21). When inexperienced priests who do not care for prayer and fasting venture into deliverance ministries, they run into serious aberrations and harmful consequences for the suffering person and for themselves.
- Promotion of ignorance and superstitions. These preachers promote superstitions and false beliefs rather than liberating people from the darkness of ignorance and false beliefs. From outside it would look as if the “devils” of the world have fled from the light of education and good Christian formation into those corners of the globe where good education and development are far from the reach of ordinary people. Hence, it amounts to abusing the poor and illiterate people in the name of faith and religion.
- Lure of money. Often miracle cures and deliverance from devil brings lot of unaccounted money from the seekers. Lack of transparency regarding the financial side of these ministries is another red flag against their authenticity. The life style of the preacher betrays the real intentions and the true face of the “god” of their worship.
- Division among people. God’s work brings communion and fraternity among the people of God. I have come across preachers of deliverance resorting to visions and attributing the causes of problems to witchcraft and black magic allegedly done by the envious relatives, neighbours or family members of the “possessed”. Such visions aggravate the divisions and cause more conflict in families and between neighbours.
- Sexual and emotional abuses. A considerable number of people who have recourse to deliverance ministries are mostly vulnerable adults and children who are often victims of abuse and exploitation. Most of them are women. Their vulnerability and suffering can easily be taken advantage of for the egoic needs of the preachers who themselves have unresolved personal wounds. There have been several cases of real and alleged sexual abuse of victims by preachers of deliverance who lack integrity of conduct, transparency in life and obedience to their superiors.
The gifts for healing and exorcism are from God for the good of the Church. They are regulated by the Church in order to do it only for the glory of God and for the good of the people, and to protect these gifts from possible abuses. We want our missionaries to take up ministries of deliverance and healing with proper preparation and permission, and the support of authentic prayer life.
4.- Sifting the chaff from the wheat: Guidelines for ministries of exorcism and healing the possessed
Ministry of the Word, through which we communicate the total mystery of Christ to humanity, is our proper calling among the people of God (CC 46). Proclamation of the Gospel includes the message of liberation from all kinds of slaveries. Our evangelizing mission in the Church aims at the liberation of people from the slavery of sin and evil and the welcoming of the Kingdom of God. Claret’s way of discerning his mission is the valid approach we should take when any of us feels a call to dedicate himself to the ministry of deliverance and healing. We shall safeguard and accompany the ministry of exorcism and deliverance by following the norms and the spirit of the Church and the Congregation. In the case of Claretian missionaries doing deliverance ministries and public healing services, the following norms should be followed.
- No Claretian should engage in exorcism and deliverance of possessions without proper discernment and without due written permission from the local ordinary of the place and the approval of the Claretian Major Superior. The Major Superior should inform the Superior General of any Claretian who carries out the practice of Exorcism and deliverance of possessions without due permission. It is also important that such persons should have undergone adequate preparation to be able to distinguish between genuine cases of demonic possession and psychological illnesses that are misinterpreted as signs of demonic possession.
- No exorcism and deliverance services should be carried out behind closed doors and without the presence of persons responsible for the “possessed”.
- When a missionary comes across a case that he considers a genuine case of “possession” by devil, he should refer the person to a competent and authorized exorcist or refer to the proper support offered in the local Church rather than taking it upon himself to deal with it.
- When the Major Superior approves the petition of a Claretian after due discernment of his gifts and suitability for the ministry of exorcism, permission of the Bishop is to be obtained in order to exercise the ministry. There should be a program of suitable preparation of the missionary for this ministry.
- Ministry of exorcism and healing should not be carried out for monetary benefits. Voluntary donations should be accounted for and be used for the good of the mission as directed by the Major Superior. Account of all donations should be kept for any eventual verification from legitimate authorities.
- There should be proper evaluation of the ministry of Exorcism and its pastoral benefits for the people of God after the term of 3 years if the person continues to dedicate in the same ministry.
I hope these directives will help the discernment of the Major Superiors with regard to our missionaries who request permission for exercising the ministry of exorcism and deliverance of “possessed” people in their ministry. Let us heed to our Blessed Mother who forms and sends her sons into the mission of her Son.
Fr. Mathew Vattamattam CMF