Sunday, March 25, 2007

Demonic Possession Seen As Possible

Demonic Possession Seen As Possible

Many feel demonic possession is possible
New book examines surge in exorcisms

By John Blake, Cox News Service

ATLANTA — Behind the thick wooden doors of a 16th-century church, the Rev. Efrem Cirlini battles an ancient nemesis.

Armed with a vial of holy water, a silver crucifix and a red book containing the rite of exorcism in Latin, the 79-year-old Roman Catholic priest places the crucifix against the throat of a grimacing woman who says she's been possessed.

"Renounce Satan!" Cirlini shouts. "Renounce the seduction of evil!"

The woman's body convulses. "I can't do it," she shouts in a baritone voice that doesn't seem to belong to her. Other voices emerge — a little girl, another deep masculine voice — all while the woman stamps her foot in agony.

"Leave me alone, priest," she says. "It is useless. She will never heal."

Nature of evil

Recently, Tracy Wilkinson sat in the living room of her parents' Atlanta home and talked about that encounter she witnessed in Bologna, Italy, two years ago.

"I was a little afraid and uneasy," she said. She was so "unnerved" by the experience that she used it to open her new book, "The Vatican's Exorcists" .

Talk of demonic possession is not confined to Italy. Just last month in Atlanta, a couple were convicted in the felony murder of their 8-year-old son, who was beaten to death by his parents after his father told investigators that his son told him that he was "Legion, soldier of the devil."

And in Romania last month, an Orthodox priest and four nuns were sentenced to 38 years in jail after they were convicted of killing a young nun who died during an exorcism ritual.

Wilkinson is an award-winning foreign correspondent who says she's experienced evil while covering ethnic genocide in Bosnia and narrowly surviving a car bombing in Baghdad. Yet she is still not sure if there is a supernatural source for evil.

"I think we all agree that evil exists in the world," she says. "Is it something real and active? Or is it the product of choice — something human beings make on their own?"

Exorcisms, which many people know about from the 1973 film "The Exorcist", have been around for centuries. Wilkinson's book examines the surge of exorcists who have been commissioned by the Vatican in the past decade as well as the formation of a group called the International Association of Exorcists.

Some may scoff at claims of demonic possession, but apparently many believe. A Harris Poll that Wilkinson cites in her book found that 60 percent of Americans believed in hell and the devil. Combine those numbers with the explosive growth of charismatic churches worldwide that believe in possession and healings, and one can expect more stories of possession in the future.

Many psychologists, however, are wary of such claims.

Scott Lilienfeld, an associate professor of psychology at Emory University, says people who claim to be possessed could be suffering from any number of mental illnesses.

They also could be vulnerable to the power of suggestion. If a priest in a position of authority comes to someone with a crucifix and says the person's problems come from a demon, the person can easily believe.

"Suggestion can be amazingly powerful," he says. "Therapists have a powerful position of authority above patients who come into therapy in a vulnerable position."

Trying to convince someone that they're not possessed can actually backfire, Lilienfeld says.

"Delusions by definition are very fixed," he says. "They tend to be resistant to evidence. ? They might become convinced that you're in league with the devil, that you are part of the conspiracy."

‘Exorcism is a prayer'

The Rev. Theodore Book of the Archdiocese of Atlanta is convinced that Satan is real. He says there are no official exorcists in his archdiocese, but most exorcists prefer to keep their identities anonymous.

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has several exorcists, but they avoid publicity to avoid a sensationalist portrayal of their practice, Wilkinson says.

Book, who is director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Atlanta Archdiocese, says most think an exorcism is a contest between a priest and a demon.

"Actually an exorcism is a prayer asking for God's grace to free a person," he says.

Exorcists aren't confined to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Rev. Brian Connor, a Baptist minister based in Summerville, S.C., is one of the most well-known exorcists in the nation. He's been featured on "Dateline NBC" and The History Channel. As head of the Good Shepherd Institute, he flies clients in for exorcisms.

Connor says an exorcist must have humility.

"You cannot put your faith in yourself or any training or your experience," he says. "Jesus is ultimately the exorcist. He just shows up and lets us watch."

Connor says his first exposure to exorcism came in 1985 when he was pastoring a Baptist church. A woman who described herself as a third-generation satanist came in for counseling. Somehow, he says he knew what he had to do.

"The Lord just threw me off of the deep end," he says. "I had no earthly idea what I was doing, but suddenly I found myself doing an exorcism on this woman."

Once he helped deliver that woman, Connor said he was transformed. His theology, counseling, even his preaching changed. He had a new ministry. He says he wasn't afraid.

"I didn't know enough to be afraid," he says. "I had a childlike faith. I knew the Lord was going to take care of me."

He lists the signs of possession: abrupt change in personality, suicidal depression, rage, withdrawal from family and friends, hearing voices, a violent aversion to the name of Jesus, Scripture, or church ?

"Sometimes people will see a dark form in their house, looking down on the person at night, shaking the bed," he says. "Sometimes they feel a presence on top of them."

Sin, either from that person or in his or her family, opens the door to the possession. An exorcism can take weeks, draining both the possessed and the exorcist, he says.

"You cannot perform an exorcism on someone you don't like," he says. "Your heart has to break for them. You have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself for them."

Feeling free

One of Connor's patients was Jennifer Barclay, a 30-year-old Texas woman. Barclay says she had been afflicted with a host of problems for a decade that defied medical treatment. She was manic depressive and had panic attacks, eating disorders and borderline personality disorders.

She also developed an aversion to church. Once, when she attended church, the pastor was preaching a sermon about demons when she began to shake and fled in panic.

Barclay says she had a "wonderful family" and couldn't figure out what was happening to her. Then her mother heard about Connor's ministry. The family visited Connor in South Carolina, where he performed an exorcism ritual that lasted for five days.

During the ritual, Barclay said she could hear voices coming from her that didn't belong to her. She reached out and tried to attack Connor. At times, she vomited and blacked out.

Finally, one day, she says she was freed. "I felt like I could float," she said. "I felt like a three-ton weight had been lifted from me."

That was Barclay's story. But Wilkinson, author of "The Vatican's Exorcists", is not convinced. Despite the dramatic encounter she saw, she never saw anything during her research that convinced her that demonic possession is real.

"I think the mind is enormously powerful," she says. "I think just about everything I saw could be explained as a psychological affliction or even just the mind playing tricks."

Barclay, though, said she believes that she was freed from Satan. "The Lord made me well," she says. "I have no doubt it was demonic oppression. I can understand how it would be hard for people to understand it, but I know the truth because I lived it."

2006 © The E.W. Scripps Co.

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