The October air finally came: spiced drinks, cozy sweaters, worn denim sherpas, pies, puffers, and most importantly, the spooky season. Halloween is upon us, but is Halloween just trick-or-treating and scary masks or is there something we are supposedly celebrating? Halloween is the eve of all hallows, i.e., All Saints’ Day Eve. Cool—or, wicked, should I say! But if we’re celebrating saints, why is Halloween the spooky time of year? All Saints’ Day, and the day after, November 2, All Souls’ Day, are days for the faithful to reflect on a few things. It is a time to contemplate the end. Death comes for us all, and seasonally the Church reminds us that there’s a battle going on. It’s a battle that is fought by men and women over centuries: the spiritual battle. St. Paul calls them victors. Victors indeed, of the conflict between good and evil.
By spiritual battle, I mean the ongoing conflict between the Eternal, and those who oppose Him, the evil one (Satan & Co.), for souls. See, if God is good, the Almighty wills that all things be redeemed and returned to unity with Him, Who Am, the Reality. The evil ones are fallen angels, who rejected God’s plan of salvation for mankind and creation out of pride, arrogance, vanity. Some angels fell, but most remained in union with God. This is the gist of spiritual combat in the grand sense. In a more subjective sense, and because this is an ethereal struggle between ultimate forces of good and evil, man, as he is free, participates per se. Additionally, driving out demons in exorcism is an office, unique to the Catholic faith. Both exorcism and daily life are plains for spiritual war against evil. In this way, the saints are victors. They sought to do combat on the field God put before them. For some, like St. Pio, it was through hearing confessions and at times grappling with evil spirits. For others, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, it was by uniting her daily sufferings and annoyances to the Eternal cause and maintaining a joyful disposition despite severe illnesses and debilitations.
In the spooky mood, however, I want to spend a considerable amount of your time, poor reader, exploring exorcism. Very basically and in rigid language, the exorcist casts out demons. More precisely, exorcists fill a particular office and function of the Catholic Church, which continues the work of Jesus Christ: namely, casting out demons.
Sensation sells. Something about our generation has proclivity to true crime: serial killing, demented murders, psychological illness. We, the people, want to see lurid scenes, deformed creatures, monsters. Feed us the most twisted ideas you can think of, right? In general terms, we are drawn to the sight of evil. Not necessarily to approach this sight with empathy or love, but rather with curiosity and confusion. So what would make a better horror film than a true story of exorcism or demonic possession? Exorcisms are not materially gory but they are in a spiritual sense. That is to say they scar the psyche and traumatize the soul. There is no chainsaw or kitchen knife, it’s not a tangible threat. It makes sense that there is nothing more disturbing than the thought that malevolent, immaterial beings could actually exist. Pretend, with me, that they do.
Many movies center on this topic. The Exorcist, Nefarious, The Rite, Sinister, The Conjuring, to name only a few. In fact, recently, Netflix produced a film titled The Pope’s Exorcist, starring and directed by Russel Crowe. Before you look it up, allow me to save you the trouble: it was horrible, not horrific.
Was it a good movie? No, but it did one thing right: it noted that the only thing more powerful than the nightmares is Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, horror movies are not criticized for their plots, scores, or dialogue—it’s about kills. Apart from the horror genre being notorious for displaying nothing but the most demented things a striking L.A. writer can produce, the mystical element that the exorcism introduces is particularly enthralling.
The Pope’s Exorcist follows Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist (yes, that’s a thing), as he Marvel’s Avengers-style fights the ancient demon Azmodius in a one v. one smackdown brawl. I jest… somewhat. The plot shows the story of Fr. Amorth as he performs an exorcism in rural Spain, on what ends up being a haunted sight of the Spanish Inquisition. There, he encounters Azmodius, the “king of hell,” whose objective is to corrupt (possess) the Vatican’s chief exorcist in order to corrupt the Catholic Church. In the interest of fully exposing how awful Crowe’s demonic action movie was, be prepared for spoilers.The film begins with the following quote from the real Fr. Amorth, who served the Vatican from 1986 until his retirement in 2000: “The devil is happiest when you don’t think it exists.” Although the film entirely misrepresents Catholicism, exorcism, and haphazardly plays on the Spanish Inquisition, Crowe, playing Amorth, delivers a tremendous line, “the only thing that bounds the love of God is our freedom and power to choose.” This is very true, but the portrayal of demonic behavior is laughable.
Over acts one and two, tension builds. Church politics are exposed (for some reason), jump scares and scary voices do what they can to frighten the audience, and then the other shoe drops. In act three, Amorth and his sidekick, Fr. Esquibel, take on the “king of hell” who uses their sins against them to cause confusion and doubt. With the help of the Crucifix, holy water, and other sacramentals (St. Benedict’s medal of which demons are terrified), Amorth is victorious, performs the exorcism, and beats Azmodius back to Hell.
The tactics the antagonist uses are somewhat peculiar, though. Repeatedly throughout the movie, the demon repeats that his “sins will seek [him] out.” This is fascinating because exorcisms are never performed alone—the exorcist always has a companion priest—and the primary consequences of sin are division and exile. By attempting to divide the faithful from each other, evil stands to gain a weakened opponent.
Regardless, the flashing lights, explosions, and elemental manipulations on screen do not reflect the reality of spiritual warfare in either the grand or micro sense. The diocese in which our university is located is actually home to two prolific deliverance ministry centers, whose primary function is the evacuation of evil spirits. At St. Michael’s Center for Deliverance Ministry in D.C., there is a critical focus on the eradication of malign spirits, exorcism, but also on the care and spiritual renewal of those who are afflicted and victimized by said torments. There are no fire-tornadoes, but rather simple and joyful Catholics praying and ministering to the spiritually infirm in silence and peace.
Take a second and consider whether or not you believe in the existence of evil and in what sense you assume this belief. Consider also that there is an increasingly popular trend to dabble with the occult: ouija boards, ethereal communication, astrology, and the rest. Today, fewer and fewer people identify with a religious tradition, yet they subscribe to what most refer to with a single, broad, vague term: “spirituality.” Simply, one will commonly hear utterances like “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” Ultimately, this means people are rejecting God and denying faith in Him, but not denying the instance of immaterial beings. This goes beyond the ghosts, ghouls, and banshees of common Halloween. This poses a serious problem for believers. If someone is not religious, but simply “spiritual” who is to say exactly what spirits are influencing and interacting with them. Because faith is declining in our age in coincidence with an increased fascination with new age spiritualism, it seems that Satan may have an upper hand.
Yet, in my estimation, one thing the faithful often forget (or rather, take for granted) is that Christ is Risen! The battle is won! Christ reigns forever. Death was defeated on the cross. This does not diminish the call of the faithful to fight tenaciously in spiritual warfare for a greater number of souls to be welcomed into the Good Shepherd’s fold. It does the opposite: it inspires.
How then, you ask, ought we engage in spiritual warfare? How do we do it? As the Savior taught us: prayer and fasting. As cool as it would be to go toe-to-toe with demonic forces, few are asked to live that life. The spiritual battle, opposed to what Crowe (and the rest of Hollywood, at that) presents, is nothing like a Michael Bay film. Instead, a much better tactic is to fight the spiritual battle on the front lines where you find yourself. This is the Little Way which St. Thérèse formulated. Engage in prayer. Make a sacrifice. Practice abstinence. Check your passions. The Holy Rosary, the Church’s prayer and meditation on the life of Christ through invocation of the Blessed Virgin, is a honed blade with which one can fight. Understand that around every corner is a spiritual battle to be won, and forever supporting you in the cause are those who engaged in the same fight: the saints. Evil is real, but not even close to the reality of God’s love. I hope you all had a happy Halloween, and a Blessed All Saints Day. All holy men and women of God, pray for us!