By RACHEL ZOLL
NEW YORK -- Citing a shortage of priests who can perform the rite, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are holding a conference on how to conduct exorcisms.
The two-day training, which ends Saturday in Baltimore, is to outline the scriptural basis of evil, instruct clergy on evaluating whether a person is truly possessed, and review the prayers and rituals that comprise an exorcism. Among the speakers will be Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, and a priest-assistant to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
"Learning the liturgical rite is not difficult," DiNardo said in a phone interview before the conference, which is open to clergy only. "The problem is the discernment that the exorcist needs before he would ever attempt the rite."
More than 50 bishops and 60 priests signed up to attend, according to Catholic News Service, which first reported the event.
Despite strong interest in the training, skepticism about the rite persists within the American church. The practice is much more accepted by Catholics in parts of Europe and elsewhere overseas. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the longtime private secretary of Pope John Paul II, revealed a few years after the pontiff's death that John Paul had performed an exorcism on a woman who was brought into the Vatican writhing and screaming in what Dziwisz said was a case of possession by the devil.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference, said only a tiny number of U.S. priests have enough training and knowledge to perform an exorcism. Dioceses nationwide have been relying solely on these clergy, who have been overwhelmed with requests to evaluate claims. The Rev. James LeBar, who was the official exorcist of the Archdiocese of New York under the late Cardinal John O'Connor, had faced a similar level of demand, traveling the country in response to the many requests for his expertise.
Exorcism has deep roots in Christianity. The New Testament contains several examples of Jesus casting out evil spirits from people, and the church notes these acts in the Catholic Catechism. Whether or not individual Catholics realize it, each of them undergoes what the church calls a minor exorcism at baptism that includes prayers renouncing Satan and seeking freedom from original sin.
A major exorcism can only be performed by a priest with the permission of his bishop after a thorough evaluation, including consulting with physicians or psychiatrists to rule out any psychological or physical illness behind the person's behavior.
Signs of demonic possession accepted by the church include violent reaction to holy water or anything holy, speaking in a language the possessed person doesn't know and abnormal displays of strength.
The full exorcism is held in private and includes sprinkling holy water, reciting Psalms, reading aloud from the Gospel, laying on of hands and reciting the Lord's Prayer. Some adaptations are allowed for different circumstances. The exorcist can invoke the Holy Spirit then blow in the face of the possessed person, trace the sign of the cross on the person's forehead and command the devil to leave.