(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis’ decision to place his hands on the head of a sick child
and pray over him on Pentecost Sunday stirred speculation he might have performed
an exorcism. The Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Fr. Federico Lombardi,
SJ, clarified on Tuesday that the Holy Father did not perform an exorcism on the occasion.
"The Holy Father did not intend to perform any exorcism," said Fr Lombardi. "Rather,"
he explained, "as he frequently does with the sick and the suffering who come his
way, he intended simply pray for a suffering person who had been brought before him."
Exorcism is, in the strict sense, the “casting out” of evil spirits. The power to exorcise was conferred by Jesus on the apostles, and it is understood that this power passes to the bishops who are the successors to the apostles, and priests the co-workers. That said, the Church has had – for many hundreds of years, it ought to be added – a very precise ritual of exorcism: there are no evangelical-style tent revival theatrics, but careful, even methodical attention and faithful following of the prescribed prayers, gestures and use of sacramental such as holy water and the crucifix. Fr. Bernd Hagenkord, SJ, clarifies further: Listen:
CRA: Who can perform exorcisms?
BHSJ: Though every priest can perform exorcisms – in fact, there is an exorcism that is part of the Rite of Baptism, so priests perform exorcisms on a fairly regular basis – Church law requires that every diocese have at least one specially trained exorcist, who knows how to distinguish the signs of demonic possession from those of mental or physical illness. In fact, even today, when some voices claim that demonic possession is on the rise, exorcism remains very, very rare. The vast majority of cases investigated turn out to be cases of mental illness.
CRA: So, there is a prescribed ritual: is exorcism a sacrament?
BHSJ: No, exorcism is most definitely not a sacrament.
CRA: What about the Pope’s gesture on Sunday?
BHSJ: Well, I wasn’t there, but I can tell you that the “laying on of hands” is a practice of very ancient standing. It goes back to the Old Testament, where it could signify election as heir – think of Isaac blessing Jacob, or ordination – as when Moses ordained Joshua. In Christian tradition, it continues to be an act of blessing, and is part of the priestly and episcopal ordination rites. It has the sense of an act of healing, as well – spiritual healing, primarily, but also of healing in body (miracles have precedents). Again, however, it is something usually done by an ordained priest or bishop – and “quietly” if you will – without spectacle. The gesture itself is also one that parents might use, in blessing their children. -- Fr. Bernd Hagenkord, SJ, is head of Vatican Radio’s German section. He was speaking with Vatican Radio’s Chris Altieri.