Father John Farao knows evil. He’s watched it take hold of a person and has worked to drive it away. He’s prayed over those afflicted with it, witnessed the suffering it causes and summoned the courage to face it directly.
Father John is an exorcist.
“There are some demons who affect people rather mildly,” says Father John, the exorcist for the Diocese of Monterey and a prison chaplain in San Luis Obispo. “Others affect people rather gravely.”
Father John makes it clear that an exorcism can be a harrowing experience for all involved, but the graphic movie depictions of sensational acts by the affected persons are nothing but fiction.
Shrouded in mystery and quietly practiced for millennia, exorcisms have been among the most sensationalized and least understood traditions of Christianity.
But the rite of exorcism is an important part of the Catholic faith, rooted in Scripture, tradition and the ministry of Jesus Christ. Center stage in the ongoing battle between good and evil, an exorcism is an expulsion — or attempted expulsion — of an evil spirit from a person or a place. Think of it as spiritual warfare.
“That’s our specialty as priests—the spiritual life and the struggle between good and evil,” Father John says. “Exorcisms are practiced quietly and misunderstood by many. They go back to the time before Jesus.”
Once commonplace in the ancient world, exorcisms today are considered relatively rare in the U.S. They are surrounded by mystique and sensationalism, especially in fiction and film—for example, the violent images of young victims dramatically displaying unsettling symptoms, signs of the demonic activity that plague them.
Although some of the fictional versions of exorcisms are rooted in fact, filmmakers sensationalize many of the elements of the rite, Father John says.
“If you listen to the facts of these movies, most of the information is true,” he says, referring to “The Exorcist,” a 1971 novel that was turned into a film in 1973 and based on the exorcism of a young boy in Maryland. “But the graphic effects are three times over the top.
“Movies are not done by people who believe—they’re done by people who want to make money and don’t understand the suffering a person goes through. So they glamorize it. It’s disseminating bad information, as if someone could walk down the street and become possessed.”
Stories of the rite of exorcism are nothing new. Exorcism psalms can be found in the Dead Seas Scrolls. Exorcisms were an important part of Jesus’ early ministry and described in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark.
“Jesus was involved in expelling evil spirits,” Father John says. “This was very much part of his ministry and the directive given to the disciples: preach the good news and cast out evil spirits. We have forgotten that and not practiced that very much in the recent past history of the Church.”
There has been a renewed call from Rome to train and certify exorcists across the globe, partly because of the apparent rise of satanic cults online. In November 2014, bishops gathered in Rome to approve the first English translation of the rite of exorcism, a major step for the Church.
“Past popes and the current pope have all spoken out very clearly against evil and people needing to be very careful regarding the struggle between good and evil,” Father John says. “Evil is a real thing and not just a spiritual concept.”
Despite this apparent need to combat evil, the rite of exorcism is not taught in seminaries in the U.S.
“People don’t talk about exorcisms, and priests don’t speak about them from the pulpit because most priests don’t have hands-on experience,” Father John says. “It’s a great loss in our Catholic faith.”
Indeed, the only place priests can receive training specifically in the ministry of exorcism in the U.S. is the Pope Leo XIII Institute in Milwaukee. The institute, which relies solely on donations to finance training, provides priests with a course that lasts two years, meeting twice a year for 10 days.
Father John, a Conventual Franciscan priest, has been performing the rite of exorcism for about five years. He received his exorcism training and mentorship in Rome. His interest in exorcisms initially stemmed from his work with prison inmates.
“I’m in the angel-and-demon business and I felt I should know something about this,” he says. “I thought, ‘I bet these guys in prison have these problems.’”
In the U.S., the requirements for determining whether an exorcism should be performed are clearly defined, extensive and strict. The Church has rigid guidelines on differentiating someone suffering from mental illness from someone who may require spiritual aide. A person’s mental and physical well-being is the highest priority, Father John says.
“We don’t want people misunderstanding what healing and deliverance is,” Father John says. “We also don’t want to leave people in a worse condition than when we found them.”
Most Catholic dioceses have a designated exorcist, with authority to perform the rite delegated from the bishop. The bishop can also appoint a separate priest in specific cases. Before an exorcism, the person undergoes extensive review by parish priests and high-ranking officials from the local diocese – the start of a long journey of extensive reviews that begins with a parish priest.
Along with meeting with priests and diocese officials, the person must meet with a psychiatrist, therapist and medical physician to determine whether their ailment is physiological or spiritual. From there, a recommendation is made by the exorcist to the bishop.
Priests and the designated exorcist closely examine the state of the person’s physical and mental health, along with thoroughly investigating their spiritual lives.
“We look at if they are attending church, if they are going to confession, if they are praying,” Father John says. “There is a careful evaluation to determine if there is an unclean spirit of some kind in the person. We are making sure we are dealing with this person psychologically, physically and spiritually. “
Hundreds of calls for spiritual assistance through an exorcism typically results in only a handful of verified cases of real spiritual struggles, says Father John, who has performed exorcisms on six people in his five years of practice.
“When I first meet with people this has been going on a long time—years.” Father John says. “They don’t know what to make of it. They have approached other people with no success, other people not willing to accept [the possibility of] evil or demonic activity. There is a sense from a person that they won’t be believed. I tell them, ‘You will be surprised what I believe.’”
Symptoms of evil vary, with the classic sign being an aversion to all things sacred: a hot or cool sensation when touching a rosary and powerful feelings of agitation when inside a church.
A single exorcism session can be as short as 45 minutes, but typically stretches longer. During the rite of exorcism, readings from the Gospel of John and specific prayers are repeated along with commands for the demon to leave.
“Some demons leave very quickly,” he says. “Others don’t go away.”
Most often, however, someone seeking an exorcism is really in need of something much simpler – basic spiritual guidance while adhering to the tenants of their faith.
“Go to church, go to confession and pray,” Father John says. “That will be enough to take care most of their struggles.”
To learn more about exorcisms in the Roman Catholic faith and the Pope Leo XIII Institute in Milwaukee, visit popeleo13institute.org/