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No Sympathy for the Devil

Booting demons not just a Catholic thing


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At least the gent didn’t barf green stuff all over the pontiff’s white cassock. I’m referring, of course, to the exorcism Pope Francis performed last Sunday after a Vatican mass. There is dramatic footage of the event—the head of the possessed man didn’t do any 360s, but he exhibited other telltale signs: gasps, groans, convulsions, curled toes, bulging eyes and gaping mouth. (Sexologists have pointed out that similar symptoms occur during orgasm, proving that coitus is a holy ritual of purification.)

For some reason, the Vatican was quick to deny a bona fide exorcism had actually taken place. This, despite the gentle pope’s “obsession with the devil, a frequent subject of his homilies,” according to the Associated Press. One would think that the pontiff’s stunning exorcism, performed on the fly, as it were, would only enhance his standing as an official holy man.

Exorcisms have long been a popular feature of Catholicism, but other religions have found it necessary from time to time to initiate procedures to send the Archfiend packing. Judaism, for instance, has an impressive ceremony in which a rabbi and 10 adult males (known as a minyan) gather in a circle around a poor possessed soul and chant Psalm 91 three times, after which the rabbi blows a ram’s horn (shofar) to unloose the grip of the demon, who then high-tails it back to hell, its claws covering its pointed ears.

But Christianity and Judaism are not alone in being forced to rebuke the devil. Hinduism and Islam have similar procedures, and even latter-day religions like Scientology and Mormonism perform exorcisms, whether or not that technical term is in their playbooks. In Scientology, a suppressive person is locked in an airtight room and forced to engage in a staring contest with Tom Cruise.

In Mormonism, there is the beloved tale of how the Prophet Joseph Smith expelled Satan from the body of Newel Knight, an early sidekick. In the prophet’s own words (History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 82-83): “I rebuked the devil and commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ to depart from him, when immediately Newel spoke out and said that he saw the devil leave him and vanish from his sight.”

At Mormon missionary reunions, former companions gather to swap faith-promoting stories of successful exorcisms. Veterans of the French Mission never get tired of hearing Elder Mitt Romney (now that he is back in the private sphere, he is once again spelling his Christian name with a superfluous “T,” an affectation he picked up in Paris) recount his exorcism of a deranged French woman who began barking and slavering whenever she saw Elder Romney approach wearing his trademark yellow beret.

Invoking the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, Elder Romney commanded le demon to exit the mademoiselle’s body, and hey presto, the demon ran whimpering down the Champs-Élysées, with its tail between its legs. Ever since that day, my former missionary companion has been careful to keep any dog at arm’s length, preferably strapped to the roof of a car.

The recent papal exorcism in Rome and Joseph Smith’s exorcism of Newel Knight are but two of the famous exorcisms of history. Besides Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Georgina Spelvin in The Devil in Miss Jones, other distinguished personages have sought the intercession of the Lord to free themselves of demons, whether of the incubus, succubus, poltergeist or goblin variety. Mother Teresa sought help for sleep problems, and Dick Cheney demanded an exorcism to rid himself of his lip sneer.

In Mother Teresa’s case, it was determined that her insomnia wasn’t caused by an aggressive incubus, but by a lumpy mattress. As for Dick Cheney, it turned out that instead of him being possessed by the devil, it was the devil who was possessed by Dick Cheney.

One of the sticky problems surrounding exorcisms is how to recognize the presence of the devil. My seminary teacher told us that a sure sign of the presence of the devil was a nagging doubt about the truth of the gospel. Also, the persistent and powerful smell of a sour dishrag. Joseph Smith said that you could tell if you were being introduced to the devil by the fact that he would stick out his hand, but you couldn’t feel it when you tried to shake it.

Demons also were recognizable by their red hair, said my seminary teacher, which meant that whenever Carrot Top came our way we were supposed to run for our lives. 

D.P. Sorensen writes a satire column for City Weekly.