PORTLAND — In popular culture, exorcism often serves as a plot device in chilling films about demonic possession. Recently, two Roman Catholic archbishops showed a different face of exorcism — performing the rite at well-attended outdoor ceremonies to drive out any evil spirits lingering after acrimonious protests.
The events’ distinctive character gave a hint of how exorcism — with roots in ancient times — has evolved in some ways as it becomes more commonplace in many parts of the world.
In Portland, Archbishop Alexander Sample led a procession of more than 200 people to a city park on Oct. 17, offered a prayer, then conducted a Latin exorcism rite intended to purge the community of evil. The event followed more than four months of racial justice protests in Portland, mostly peaceful but sometimes fueling violence and riots.
On the same day, 600 miles to the south, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone performed an exorcism ceremony outside a Catholic church in San Rafael, where protesters had earlier toppled a statue of Father Junipero Serra.
“We pray that God might purify this place of evil spirits, that he might purify the hearts of those who perpetrated this blasphemy,” Cordileone said.
Serra was an 18th-century Spanish missionary priest, long praised by the church for bringing Roman Catholicism to what is now the Western United States. His critics say Serra, in converting Native Americans to Catholicism, forced them to abandon their culture or face brutal punishment.
Cordileone said the exorcism prayers in Latin, remarking that “Latin tends to be more effective against the devil because he doesn’t like the language of the church.” The prayers were different from those offered when a person is believed to be the subject of demonic possession.
Two experts on exorcism — religious studies professor Andrew Chesnut of Virginia Commonwealth University and the Rev. Pius Pietrzyk of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in California — recalled no other recent exorcisms in the U.S. similar to those in Oregon and California.
Chesnut noted that in Mexico, some high-ranking Catholic clergy performed an exorcism in 2015 seeking to expel demons nationwide. Participants said they were responding to high levels of violence, the practice of abortion and the crimes of the drug cartels.
More broadly, Chesnut said exorcism, in its traditional form as a demon-chaser, is increasingly widespread around the world, though there are no official statistics.
“The Exorcist,” the memorable horror film of 1973, depicts exorcism as a relatively rare and secretive endeavor. But it’s now so common that some exorcists combat demons remotely using their cellphone, according to Chesnut.
He says the driving force behind the surge since the 1980s has been the spread of Pentecostal churches that highlight the conflict between demons and the Holy Spirit, especially in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, including the Philippines.
The Catholic Church is not ceding the practice of exorcism to these other faiths. Pope Francis has acknowledged the legitimacy of the practice, and a Vatican-approved university in Rome has been conducting exorcism training sessions during Francis’ papacy for priests from around the world.