Q: I was raised in a devoutly Catholic
family; my mother emphasized the
mysticism of our faith. Thus, I grew up
with a sense of the spiritual world in everyday
life. I have also been fascinated by
the idea of exorcism.
As a third-year resident doctor specializing
in psychiatry, I am very curious about
what part, if any, psychiatry does or can
play in the world of exorcism and what part
the belief in possession plays in psychiatry.
I have been peripherally exposed to
several cases where a patient requested
that she or he have an exorcism. I have felt
sad that, though Catholic, I was not qualified
to give the patient’s primary doctor
any advice. What resources do you recommend
on this topic?
A: I affirm your desire to recognize
how the spiritual world impacts
daily life. Some people mistakenly
think it is a sign of maturity or progress
to deny that connection. Popes John
Paul II and Benedict XVI have vigorously
challenged the temptation to isolate
faith from daily life.
The Catholic Church’s basic approach
to demonic possession is to
admit its possibility but to encourage
specialists (including doctors like you)
to investigate whether the problematic
behavior has some other explanation.
A local bishop is obliged to exhaust
those possibilities before authorizing a
priest to conduct an exorcism.
Canon 1172 of the 1983 Code of
Canon Law states: “No one may lawfully
exorcise the possessed without
the special and express permission of
the local Ordinary [bishop in charge
of a diocese]. This permission is to be
granted by the local Ordinary only to
a priest who is endowed with piety,
knowledge, prudence and integrity of
Expanding on this point, the Catechism
of the Catholic Church teaches: “The priest must proceed with prudence,
strictly observing the rules established
by the Church. Exorcism is
directed at the expulsion of demons or
to the liberation from demonic possession
through the spiritual authority
which Jesus entrusted to his Church.
Illness, especially psychological illness,
is a very different matter; treating
this is the concern of medical science.
Therefore, before an exorcism is performed,
it is important to ascertain
that one is dealing with the presence
of the Evil One, and not an illness”
I recommend The Occult Revolution:
A Christian Meditation (Herder
and Herder, 1971), by Richard Woods,
O.P. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Second Edition) has a good article
on exorcism. Father Gabriele Amorth,
chief exorcist for the Vicariate of Rome,
has written An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories (Ignatius
I also recommend the National Catholic
Bioethics Center (www.ncbcenter.org). Also helpful are the Linacre Quarterly,
the Catholic Medical Association
(www.cathmed.org) and www.CatholicPhysicians.org.
While genuine demonic possession may be fairly rare, there is certainly
something demonic about an individual’s
reluctance to name his or her addictions
or blind spots, assuring friends,
co-workers or family members that
whatever is being questioned is “no
big deal.” Anyone challenging that attitude
or activity, however, often finds
out that it is, in fact, a very “big deal”
to that person.
In his March 1992 column, “The
Wise Man Answers,” Father Norman
Perry, O.F.M., gave an excellent answer
to a similar question. After affirming
that angels and devils are real beings
and not simply symbols, he wrote: “I
would also add my own caution that
we do not become preoccupied with
thoughts about the devil and attribute
all our temptations and the evils we
experience to Satan. We have to contend
with our own human weakness.
“Another point: No matter how powerful
the devil may be, Christ has conquered
him and he cannot hurt us
unless we abandon Christ.”
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem
over 2,000 years ago in order to demonstrate
in a unique way how much God
loves us, how much God wants us to
share in the divine life of grace. No part
of creation is ever beyond God’s concern
What Does This Mystery Mean?
Q: What did Pope John Paul II mean
when he identified “Proclamation of
the Kingdom” as the Third Luminous Mystery?
I can understand the other four new
mysteries, but not this one because I don’t
know to what it refers.
A: In his apostolic letter Rosary of
the Virgin Mary (October 2002),
Pope John Paul II wrote, “Against the
background of the words ‘Mary, Mary,’
the principal events of the life of Jesus
Christ pass before the eyes of the soul.”
Later in that letter he explained, “Contemplating
the scenes of the rosary
in union with Mary is a means of learning
from her to ‘read’ Christ, to discover
his secrets and to understand his
The four sets of mysteries of the Rosary
usually identify events lasting minutes
or hours. The mystery you have
identified, however, refers to the several
years of Jesus’ public life, spent preaching
and performing miracles.
Although Christianity borrowed the
term mystery from a Greek word meaning “to hide,” Christians have understood
these events as public manifestations of
God’s overall plan for the human family.
St. Paul spoke of himself as bringing “to completion for you the word of God,
the mystery hidden from ages and from
generations past. But now it has been
manifested to his holy ones, to whom
God chose to make known the riches of
the glory of this mystery among the
Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for
glory” (Colossians 1:25-27).
A condensation of Rosary of the Virgin
Mary appears in our January 2003
Catholic Update. The luminous mysteries
are further explained in “The
Luminous Mysteries: Exploring Five
Major Events in Jesus’ Public Ministry,”
by Father Jack Wintz, O.F.M. (Catholic
Update, January 2004).
Q: I recently attended a Coptic Mass at
a nearby parish. I did not receive
Holy Communion there, but I am wondering
if I could have. I know that they
trace their Church back to Jesus by way of
the Apostle Mark. We believe in the same
Lord and celebrate the same sacraments.
A: In fact, there are two Coptic
Churches: the Coptic Orthodox
Church, which looks to the Patriarch of
Constantinople as the “first among
equals” of the Orthodox patriarchs,
and the Coptic Catholic Church, which
is in full communion with the bishop
of Rome. The Coptic Orthodox Church
numbers approximately 57 million
members worldwide while the Coptic
Catholic Church has approximately
200,000 members. Both groups are concentrated
in Egypt but are found in
other parts of the world.
As far as the Roman Catholic Church
is concerned, you can receive Communion
in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
They may see that differently, and you
should respect their custom.
There is no question that you are
free to receive Holy Communion in
the Coptic Catholic Church, following
their understanding of what being “properly disposed” requires about fasting
and other considerations.
In 1996 the U.S. Catholic bishops
drew up “Guidelines for the Reception
of Communion.” That document,
printed in worship aids produced in
this country, includes the statement:
“Members of the Orthodox Churches,
the Assyrian Church of the East, and
the Polish National Catholic Church
are urged to respect the discipline of
their own churches. According to
Roman Catholic discipline, the Code of
Canon Law does not object to the
reception of communion by Christians
of these churches” (canon 844:3).
Q: Some of my friends say that the New Testament forbids widows
and widowers to remarry. Is that true? I cannot find anything to
support such a statement, and I have observed that many Christians
who are widows or widowers have remarried.
Yes, they can if they observe the Church’s other regulations
about marriage (for example, a widowed uncle is not free to
marry a niece). Some Christians in Corinth apparently felt
that all second marriages were prohibited, but St. Paul affirms the freedom
to do so (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). Remarriage of young widows is, in
fact, encouraged in 1 Timothy 5:14.
Some Christians tend to assume that everything they do not favor must
be prohibited somewhere in the Bible. We all know better than that.
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