“A Night with an Exorcist.” It’s amazing that just posting that online or on some flyers around campus the response we received. To this day, this event remains the most popular program Newman Catholic at Montclair State has held over the last decade. In fact, it was so popular in 2011 that we repeated it in 2016 (one benefit to campus ministry is the ability to recycle something once the student population has completely turned over). It was also one of the easiest things to arrange. We reserved the University Conference center which could seat well over 700 people; reached out to Fr. Vincent Lampert who is the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and was trained at the Vatican for this task over 15 years ago to see if he was available and willing to come (which he generously was) and then did a little publicity. Both times we had standing room only attendance with people sitting on the edge of their seats for over an hour and a half and staying for another hour for Questions and Answers. There was no refreshments or enticements. It was the easiest program to promote and generate interest.
No doubt the curiosity factor inspired by Hollywood films like the classic 1973 film “The Exorcist” to even more recent attempts like the 2011 film “The Rite” which gave cinematic treatments to the supernatural battle between good and evil are a major factor. It was not uncommon for students hearing about the event to say “Wait – that’s actually a real thing?” to which we could respond, “hey it’s a free event, come and hear for yourself.” It was an easy sell. (If only getting people to Sunday Mass was as easy, but I digress)
The thing that I appreciated the most, both times that Fr. Lampert visited, was how sober he was in sharing his experiences. He was able to talk about encountering a woman who levitated, spoke in demonic voices and different languages as matter-of-factly as someone who was giving directions to a building on campus. It was clear that he wasn’t impressed by these dramatic experiences. Nor was he looking to exploit them for entertainment value. His main reason for accepting any invitation to speak of these things was to underline for people that the devil is real, that evil influences exist.
You would think such reminders aren’t really necessary. One look at the news, a scroll on our timelines on our social media feeds can give you a full display of the seven deadly sins – and then some. But in that, we look at these things from the false sense of safety of our screens. In a lot of ways we think of evil as something that remains distant from us. We look at evil as this external thing that for most of us we don’t reflect on in our day to day lives. It’s something “out there” (wherever there is). It’s something that some really messed up people partake in – like hard core criminals. If we look at evil on a personal, even then, our impulse is to think of maybe someone who hurt us or someone we care about pretty deeply. “They’re evil” we can easily surmise. I’ve seen more than a few posts where we feel comfortable labeling someone as “the devil” or even “the anti-Christ”.
But in all of those instances we look at evil – the devil – demonic activity as something distant from us. We’re good people -or trying to be. Heck, you’re reading this on some priest’s blog – when just a few clicks away there’s a whole lot worse you could be looking at.
There’s truth to that. We are good people – God made us that way. And many of us are striving to be good people who do good things. But that can lull us into a false sense of security. We might not go into the full-blown heresy of denying the devil or hell exists. But do we recognize the need to “be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)?
This came to mind when I stumbled upon an article from the Catholic News Agency. The headline read: “Exorcist: Temptation – not possession – is the most significant demonic activity.” (Read the article here) It was a fascinating read for me because it reminded me of the lecture that Fr. Lampert had on campus. The reality of demonic possession is something that garners more attention than an article on “confession” or “sin” ever would. And that’s the problem. We don’t like to reflect on our own need – not for an exorcist – but for confession ourselves.
That was also a good examination of conscience for me. For example, I know how infuriated I’ve been this past year over the sex abuse scandal that’s affected the Catholic Church – and the ongoing cover-ups and finger pointing and seeming lack of action to become completely transparent about all of this diabolical stuff that’s afflicted the Church for far too long… and just destroyed so many people’s lives – not to mention shattered the faith of countless others. As a priest I’m disgusted, repulsed and embarrassed by “brother” priests who’ve done such things. But if I’m not careful, I can quickly move from being defensive (I have never and would never do such things) to becoming self-righteous. In that, I lose sight of my own sinfulness – the areas of temptation that I succumb to or find hard to resist. I can start to look at what those people have done as “evil”… convincing myself “I”m a good person” forgetting that I am a sinner… I am in need of the same Savior as everyone else needs – I need Jesus and without Him, I have nothing.
As Catholics, we are blessed to have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We have the opportunity to go to confession after we’ve made an examination of conscience and see all the sins, all the areas of failure that we struggle with and want to unburden ourselves from and then to receive Jesus’ forgiveness in the absolution. It’s one way that we combat the evil that we face in the world on the most important of local levels possible – in our own lives.