What to Know About Catholic Deliverance and Exorcism

[fbshare type=”button” float=”right” width=”100″] By Adam Blai

deliverance prayer, exorcism, Catholic

Deliverance and exorcism are two different forms of spiritual intervention. Deliverance is a broad term that can mean being freed from any problem of a spiritual nature or cause. Here it will be defined as deprecatory prayer (a request) offered with the hope that God will free a person from a spiritual affliction.

Over the last fifty years or so, most deliverance work was done by Protestant denominations, and the books on deliverance over that time were from those perspectives. One erroneous idea that comes out of this tradition is that anything commanded to a demon by a baptized Christian in the name of Jesus will be obeyed immediately. This is a magical-thinking approach as it doesn’t take into account the free will of the person in relationship with that demon. We cannot foist our choices onto other adults; they have their own free will. In some Protestant books on deliverance, one is encouraged to speak directly to, and command, the demons. This is imprecatory prayer, a direct command. It is critical to understand that imprecatory prayer directly commands a demon, which is a tacit acceptance to a personal battle with that demon, while deprecatory prayer asks God to act against the demon. The Catholic Church has understood that the full authority to command demons was given to the Twelve Apostles, therefore a priest needs Apostolic authority given to him by a bishop before he engages in a battle with a demon. Of course a bishop, cardinal, or pope can do an exorcism at any time.

It is easy to become distracted by the drama of deliverance and exorcism and lose sight of the fact that the source of demonic problems is a relationship with sin, and usually involves the First Commandment. It is often the case that, over time, emotional wounds lead to sin, which becomes habitual. The person grows in the wrong direction, like a tree that is bound and canted to the side as a sapling. The deception of the demon is to hide in these wounded feelings and distorted sense of self, seeming integral and necessary while fomenting more harm. People affected by demons must begin their healing by letting go of their own sins through repentance and of the sins of others through forgiveness.

The cycle of repentance and forgiveness is bolstered by reaffirming one’s loyalty to God, such as with the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, the renewal of baptismal promises, and participation in the sacraments. God works with the person where they are and they are usually given as much insight into their own wounds and sinfulness as they can handle at the time. It is like training that tree to now grow in a new way: change too fast and the tree breaks.

A common challenge in deliverance and exorcism ministry is discerning whether a case is possession or severe oppression. Just below full possession, a person may manifest to some degree contorting, growling, reacting somewhat negatively to sacramentals, and hints of other indications of possession. However, in cases of full possession we see the demon taking over the body completely: supernatural strength, occult knowledge, knowledge of all languages, and detecting the holy.

It is important to understand the difference between an exorcism and a solemn exorcism. An exorcism is an imprecatory prayer (a command), such as the exorcism in the Sacrament of Baptism. A solemn exorcism is a liturgical imprecatory ritual provided by the Church for treating demonically possessed people. Trouble arises when well-intentioned people presume to be able to perform something resembling a solemn exorcism to aid in cases of demonic oppression or possession. Liturgical prayer is reserved to clergy, and the Church limits imprecatory prayers against demons to priests with authority from their bishops.

In 1890 Pope Leo XIII added the “Exorcism Against Satan and the Fallen Angels” as an appendix to the solemn exorcism. The Leonine (or “minor”) exorcism is effective in resolving demonic infestation cases. It has also been used, with permission from the ordinary, as a diagnostic test of possession in cases that are not yet clear. Not just any manifestation in response to the Leonine exorcism is sufficient evidence of possession; one or more of the traditional signs must still be documented. At no time should the public use this prayer as a way to test for possession; it must only be used by a priest with permission from his bishop. There have been cases of lay people becoming possessed as a result of using the minor exorcism over a possessed person.

The Church provides deliverance from oppression cases, even just under full possession, primarily through reception of the sacraments and spiritual direction. The affected person contributes greatly to their liberation through fully embracing spiritual guidance, confession, forgiveness, prayer, penance, and the Mass. When a person starts to exhibit demonic manifestations, the case should be referred to the bishop’s office. Even though the case may not rise to the level of full possession, the bishop’s office or appointed personnel can oversee the spiritual direction and monitoring of the case.

In the instructions to the priest in the Roman Ritual, the priest is warned to not too readily believe that a person is possessed and to consider whether they are suffering from mental illness. The Church requires that an investigation be made to ensure that the symptoms cannot be explained by mental or medical illness and that at least some of the four signs of possession are also present.


Adam Blai is an expert on religious demonology and exorcism for the Pittsburgh Diocese. He has been an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists in Rome for a number of years. Blai is the author of Hauntings, Possessions, and Exorcisms, a field guide to defense against the demonic.