From Manila to Mexico City Catholic priests are leading a new and sometimes spectacular crusade against demonic possession
Exorcism has become so popular worldwide that now it’s not only performed on tormented individuals but also on entire nations. A few months ago Mexico, the second largest Catholic country, was exorcised of its demons in an unprecedented rite of exorcismo magno performed in secret in the city of San Luis Potosí.
On May 20, the renowned Spanish exorcist Fr José Antonio Fortea, author of the book El Exorcismo Magno, joined Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Guadalajara, and a cadre of trained exorcists to perform the maximum type of exorcism, reserved for nations and dioceses, on the Mexican Republic itself. Fr Fortea explained that exorcismo magno is “useful in situations in which great violence has been unleashed in a country”.
Mexico has been plagued by hyper-violence since 2006, when former president Felipe Calderón launched an unprecedented assault on some of the major drug cartels. Since then an estimated 151,000 Mexicans have died and another 26,000 have disappeared in the ongoing battles over access to the largest drug market on earth: the US.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, has paid special attention to the conflict in Mexico and will visit the embattled nation early next year.
The chief reason the Pope recently raised Archbishop Alberto Suárez Inda of Morelia to the rank of cardinal was his condemnation of the narco-violence plaguing his home state of Michoacan. The Pontiff even got himself in a bit of hot water with his recent warning to his native Argentina to avoid “Mexicanisation” (rising narco-violence). And if the Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte (Saint Death), has been condemned by the Vatican and is denounced on a weekly basis in Mexico, it’s because the Church views the skeleton saint as the poster child of the narco-culture of death. A cadre of Catholic exorcists in Mexico, and even an American bishop in Texas, now specialise in performing exorcisms on parishioners who have been possessed by the spirit of the skeletal folk saint.
Demand for both Pentecostal and Catholic exorcism was already booming worldwide well before Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope. His informal exorcism performed on a Mexican parishioner in a wheelchair two years ago has made the rite of demonic deliverance even more popular. The Mexican priest who brought the afflicted parishioner to Rome presented him to the Pope as demon-possessed. Having observed hundreds of such exorcisms during the course of my research in Latin America, I recognised the Pope’s firm and determined laying of both hands on the head of the afflicted young man as an informal exorcism in the form of a deliverance prayer.
Since the late 1980s, competition with Pentecostalism has led to the formation of a cadre of Latin American priests affiliated to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), which specialises in “liberation” or exorcism ministries. Such is the current demand for release from demonic possession that some priests, such as the Brazilian Charismatic superstar Fr Marcelo Rossi, even celebrate “liberation Masses” on a weekly basis.
Acknowledging his pastoral debt to Brazilian Pentecostal leader Bishop Edir Macedo, whose Universal Church of the Kingdom of God brought exorcism to the fore of spirit-centred Christianity in Latin America, Fr Rossi stated in an interview that “it was Bishop Edir Macedo who woke us up. He got us up.”
Behind closed doors, CCR lay leaders also practise unofficial exorcism on believers manifesting symptoms of satanic influence. Many bishops feel such unsanctioned exorcisms are a threat to their ecclesiastical authority and have issued statements denouncing the practice. In its official statement of approval of the CCR in 1986, the Guatemalan bishops’ conference referred to “irregularities” with exorcisms and reminded Charismatics that the rite can only be performed by priests with proper episcopal consent.
As the CCR has expanded among the working classes of the Global South, demand for physical healing and exorcism has become much greater than in the past.
In the Philippines, where the majority of Catholics are Charismatics, there is even a shortage of trained exorcists, which has led the Archdiocese of Manila to recruit dozens of new ones.
Many impoverished urban Catholics, like their Pentecostal counterparts, seek divine resolution of their poverty-related afflictions. Thus, grassroots Charismatics typically implore the Holy Spirit to empower them to overcome such afflictions as alcoholism, unemployment, physical illness, domestic strife and demonic oppression. In Brazil and much of the Caribbean, the latter often takes the form of possession by the exús, or liminal trickster spirits of Candomble, Umbanda and other African diasporan religions.
Like Pope Francis, Catholic Charismatics are very focused on the role of the Devil and see his hand is such “vices” as soap operas and drinking. Exorcism in the CCR, however, has not developed to the point that it has in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and other neo-Pentecostal denominations where the demons (in the form of Umbanda or Candomble spirits) are actually invoked, then to be expelled in dramatic fashion by combative pastors.
As shocking as it may be to some Catholics in the Global North, Pope Francis’s informal exorcism and the exorcismo magno of Mexico itself neatly capture the rising importance of the Global South, where prayers for deliverance from evil are common Catholic (and Pentecostal) currency. It would appear that the first pope from the Global South has not only opted for the poor but has also adopted a preferential option for the Holy Spirit.
Andrew Chesnut holds the Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of numerous books and articles on religion in Latin America, including Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy.