By Jullie Yap Daza
There’s a scene from one of those movies about exorcism where the priest, a fictional Jesuit played by Anthony Hopkins, is performing the ritual when his cellphone rings. “Father” Hopkins picks up the phone with his left hand and talks into it as his outstretched right arm continues to drive out the demon that has possessed the young woman he is trying to heal and make whole again.
Years earlier, the first and most memorable (because it’s the most frightful to me) movie about demonic possession, The Exorcist, was to provide the template, so to speak, for succeeding films of the genre by exhibiting scenes of the patient (or victim) levitating, speaking in a deep basso profundo voice, turning his or her head 180 degrees, spewing slime from the mouth while the tongue utters the foulest language. The movie was based on the book of the same title by a Jesuit-educated writer. (After reading that book, I had insomnia for two nights.)
I cite these examples of exorcism, also referred to as spiritual liberation, after Rev. Winston Cabading, O.P., an exorcist and secretary-general of the University of Santo Tomas, challenged priests, including exorcists-in-training, to liberate themselves from misconceptions and preconceptions. In an article he wrote for the last volume of Fr. Jose Francisco Syquia’s trilogy, Exorcist, Fr. Cabading advises readers, “Why do you allow your faith to be shaped by Hollywood?”
A flippant answer would be that Hollywood imagines and pictorializes the dramatic aspects of exorcism and what exorcists are trained to do for those of us who have fortunately never witnessed such a powerful event, but as both Fathers Cabading and Syquia warn us, exorcism is not to be taken lightly. Do not play with fire or you will have the devil to pay.
Demonic possession has been around for centuries, long before Christianity arrived, but the sad news is that even as the world grows more worldly, “cases of demonic oppression, obsession, and possession (have been) increasing over the years,” with the archdiocese of Manila handling around 100 cases every month. Rising to the challenge, the Vatican conducts yearly conferences of exorcists from all over the world, including Fr. Syquia, the Manila archdiocese’s chief exorcist who may now be considered a veteran delegate.
On another front, the First National Conference on the Fundamentals of the Ministry of Spiritual Liberation and Exorcism was held in July at UST, a six-day, closed-door event that brought together 94 exorcists and 10 lay assistants from all over the Philippines. In the same event, the Philippine Association of Catholic Exorcists (PACE) was born, pace meaning peace in Latin.
Rev. Feffrey Grob, JCD, chancellor and exorcist of the archdiocese of Chicago, talked about “cults and the occults.” Other topics included angels and demons, canon law, “infestations” in the Philippine setting, extraordinary forms of attacks. From a medical, psychiatric, and psychological perspective, Dr. Ramon Javier, chairman of the UST Department of Neurosciences, and counseling experts Rebecca Esguerra and Milagros Reyes provided their insights.
A conference participant recalled how on the first day one lens of Fr. Syquia’s eyeglasses cracked even when there were no sudden changes in temperature on his face or in the room; how the dentures of another speaker, also a priest, “just fell off”; how a volunteer lost her voice just before she was to deliver her speech and got it back only after Fr. Syquia prayed over her; how the sound system just went crazy for several minutes. These little incidents had everyone asking, “Was it the devil’s work?”
As every pope has been admonishing the faithful, they must know that Satan is ever present, and for exorcists doing battle with the Evil One, much is demanded of them. The ministry of spiritual liberation and exorcism, reminds the exorcist Fr. Cabading, “forces its authorized ministers to live a holy life.” He is speaking from experience, he says, advising others who would follow the same physically and spiritually arduous path: “I , too, need to be vigilant in my own life so that retaliations would have no effect on me and my loved ones, or that the afflicted would need to live in habitual sanctifying grace henceforth in order to prevent further attacks in the future.”