The Devil Made Me Do Or, Maybe Not

Toward the end of last week’s meeting of the Church Guys, the discussion turned to culturally significant movies. One movie stood out for me:  The Exorcist. Coming out in 1973 (December 26, 1973), the movie would be nominated for Best Picture.  I remember watching it behind my parents’ back with my best friend and being truly terrified for weeks.  (I followed my parents’ directions much better afterwards.)  The poster still sends shivers down my spine.


When I looked it up, Wikipedia told me that the movie had been based on events that took place in the Washington, D.C.-area.  Around 2000, an editor for Strange Magazine set out to pull together the “cold, hard facts” about the incident underlying The Exorcist.  Painstakingly reviewing the evidence lead to the conclusion that the events probably weren’t paranormal at all and that most of the background “facts” are urban legend.  Most of the information here comes from the 1999-2000 Strange Magazine article. (The article is quite well done and worth reading. It is well-written, with the Elan of a good detective story.  I encourage you to read the whole thing.)  Unless otherwise noted, the source for the facts about the incident in this post is the linked article.

The Exorcist was based on a story from August 1949.  The news stories suggest that there were paranormal goings-on in Mount Ranier, MD centered on a particular and peculiar boy:

The media first became involved in this case when The Washington Post ran an article on August 10, 1949 titled “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’ Boy.” Written in an almost tongue-in-cheek style by reporter Bill Brinkley, the piece tells an “out-of-this-world” story of a local 13-year-old boy. The story came to light when an unnamed minister gave a speech before a local meeting of the Society of Parapsychology at the Mount Pleasant Library in Washington, D.C.

The media of that era was just like today’s and soon other local newspapers were reporting the story.  By late August, the basics of the story were out and fixed:

On August 19, 1949 The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) featured the article “Priest Freed Boy of Possession By Devil, Church Sources Say.” As the first account to provide any exorcism details to the public, the article opens by saying, “A Catholic priest has successfully freed a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Md., boy of reported possession by the devil here early this year, it was disclosed today.” While names are withheld, it is revealed that the ritual of exorcism was given after the boy’s affliction was studied at both Georgetown University Hospital and St. Louis University.

Later a 16 or 26 page diary of the exorcism (how long it is, if it really exists, is in doubt) appeared.  Many years later, an aspiring screenwriter wrote a script based on the story, Hollywood snapped it up, and we got The Exorcist.

It turns out, however, that there was a boy.  He did not live in Mount Ranier, Maryland, as reputed; he lived in nearby Cottage City, Maryland.  When the ‘possession’ started, the boy and his family were Lutheran; by the end, they were Catholic.  Although it appears that the Church (at least in DC) approved the administration of the rite of exorcism in the boy’s case, it does not appear to have pronounced officially on whether it did, in fact, involve actual demonic possession.  In a reluctant conversation with the author of the Strange Magazine article, one of the priests (then studying, now ordained) who assisted in the St. Louis rite seemed doubtful:

Halloran emerged as a central figure for his role in the actual St. Louis exorcism conducted by Father Bowdern. In 1949 Halloran was a 26-year-old scholar at St. Louis University studying for a master’s degree and preparing for priesthood. He was called upon by Bowdern to assist the priests in different aspects of the exorcism and today is the one living eyewitness to those events who is still willing to discuss his experiences. In August 1997 Halloran was reassigned from San Rafael Church in San Diego, California to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where today he works as the hospital chaplain

Fr. Halloran’s description is quite different from the movie version:

My questions to Halloran a were met with brief, direct responses.

“Did the boy speak in any languages other than English?”
“Just Latin.”

“Did it appear he understood the Latin he was speaking?”
“I think he mimicked us.”

“Was there any change in the boy’s voice?”
“Not really.”

“When the boy struck you in the nose, did he exhibit extraordinary strength?”
“I don’t know, I never even thought very much about it. It certainly wasn’t [former world boxing champion Mike] Tyson hitting me in the nose or something like that (laughs).”

I asked Halloran to elaborate and describe to me some of the things he witnessed that he could not explain. He paused and slowly said, “I saw a bottle slide from a dresser across the room—there was no one near it. The bed moving….” I interrupted and asked if the bed was stationary or on rollers. He said, “It was on rollers like any bed, but I was leaning on it when it moved one time.”

I inquired about the boy’s spitting, urinating and vomiting, all activities that he was said to have indulged in with great vigor during various points of the exorcism. Halloran responded, “Well, spitting was frequent…it wasn’t significant…there wasn’t any vomiting or urinating that I recall.”

According to the boy’s best friend, though, the boy (and his friend) had taught themselves to spit quite skillfully and in an unusual way.  The rest seems quite mundane.

The boy’s life in Cottage City was that of a troublemaking loner, with a definite mean streak, as related by those who knew him.  He did appear to have symptoms that might be psychopathology and had an otherwise difficult family life — he did not live with Ozzie and Harriet.  Interestingly, his family was Lutheran; the Lutheran pastor told the family to call the family doctor after observing the boy overnight at the pastor’s residence.  Apparently, the doctor simply prescribed “phenobarbitol.”  The Strange Magazine article’s author concluded that the testimony suggests that this set of circumstances did not involve demonic possession and his conclusion seems reasonable:

Personally, I do not believe Rob Doe [a pseudonym] was possessed. There is simply too much evidence that indicates that as a boy he had serious emotional problems stemming from his home life. There is not one shred of hard evidence to support the notion of demonic possession. The facts show that he was a spoiled and disturbed only child with a very overprotective mother and a non-responsive father. To me his behavior was indicative of an outcast youth who desperately wanted out of Bladensburg Junior High School at any cost. He wanted attention and he wanted to leave the area and go to St. Louis. Throwing tantrums was the answer. He began to play his concocted game. For his efforts he got a collection of priests (who had no previous exorcism experience) who doted over him as he lay strapped to a bed. His response was that of any normal child—he reacted with rage, he wanted out. Without delving into the dynamics of psychosomatic illness, there is no question there was something wrong with Rob Doe prior to January 1949, something that modern-era psychiatry might have best addressed. Rob Doe was not just another normal teenage boy.

The author then states:

Each of the parties involved in this case approached it from its own frame of reference. To psychiatrists, Rob Doe suffered from mental illness. To priests this was a case of demonic possession. To writers and film/video producers this was a great story to exploit for profit. Those involved saw what they were trained to see. Each purported to look at the facts but just the opposite was true—in actuality they manipulated the facts and emphasized information that fit their own agendas.

On the one hand, this is undoubtedly true.  As a lawyer who helps clean up workplace disputes when they get to court, the overriding importance of frame of reference beyond cavil.  An employee can honestly and truly believe that what was, in reality, a slight, is simply evidence of a broader conspiracy to get him or her, a great employee.  A supervisor can have it had “up to here” and honestly believe that neutral or good work was poor or otherwise unacceptable.  If the dispute lasts long enough, both employee and supervisor end having permanent rose-colored contact lenses attached permanently to their eyes.

I depart from the author because I think the boy was manipulating as does the author, which de-emphasizes the implicit negative carried by the term “agenda,” especially for the Catholics.  For the Catholics, he did things that a Catholic would interpret as demonic.  For others, he did different things.  I wonder if he did Catholic things for the benefit of his Lutheran family and pastor; ‘demonic’ things for the benefit of others.  There were a lot of agendas, and I view the boy as the primary agenda master.

What about Hollywood and the journalists?  The journalists did a poor job.  The first reporter published it as a “tongue in cheek” report.  The others piled on, but obviously did no work whatsoever.  If they had, there may have been no story at all.

Hollywood, of course, knows a good story when it sees one and The Exorcist was that.  Visual, mysterious, supernatural, religious.  In some ways, it was the anti-The Bells of St. Mary or even the anti-Ben Hur.  There was none of the good nature of The Bells Of St. Mary’s and none of the human complexity so evident in Ben Hur.  But it would be definitely be entertaining.

I have not seen The Exorcist again and do not plan to do so (it really terrified me).  I wonder, though, whether this was a ghost story or an “idiot-religious person” story.  I wonder how the priests and the Church through them were presented? Were they idiots? Were they good-natured rubes? Were they appropriately skeptical? Were they real people? Did The Exorcist‘s drama derive from an all-powerful Satan using humans as playthings or was is it a typical drama: we know the good guy will win, but how?  Was it ambivalent in a way that The Bells of St. Mary’s and Ben Hur were not?

In other words, did The Exorcist mark a cultural turning point in which it became acceptable to mock Catholicism after the hey-day of the 40’s (Going My Way) and 50’s (On The Waterfront) (itself a movie that presents a Catholic priest hero but now as a social activist rather than a spiritual one, a different picture the priests in Going My Way)? Did the The Exorcist reflect an attempt to stereotype (or an attempt to reinforce an already existing generational stereotype) that the essence of Catholicism was superstition, while folks like Timothy Leary gave, er, alternative approaches?  Deciding whether The Exorcist is culturally significant is “which came first the chicken or the egg” problem.  The culture had to be ready first, but did the movie crystallize and give voice to something that people wanted to believe or already, however vaguely, thought?  Hollywood then served up many more horror films like this such as the execrable The Amityville Horror.  But the Baby Boomers quickly got their fill of demonic possession and Hollywood moved on to the ‘demonic’ mad slasher: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Saturday the 14th.  Was The Exorcist a culturally significant film? No doubt.

I will close with a prayer that somehow seems quite appropriate:

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.



Mysteries Of The Church: The Afterlife

This is an interesting video, produced in conjunction with the Diocese of Brooklyn, about what we believe about the afterlife.  It is well-produced and visually appealing.  It also taught me something and might offer you some new insight.  There are many more of these so we will be seeing more in the future.

Three things surprised me.  The first was the explanation of Hell.  The announcer states what I always thought we Catholics believed about Hell and then affirmatively states that that is untrue.  She then backs it up with ecclesial authority from the Diocese of Brooklyn.  I still wonder, though.

Second, the affirmation that “Heaven” is wherever God is struck me.  Not so much because it is surprising, but because I just stumbled across a meditation from St. Teresa of Avila, who made the same assertion.  There are no coincidences, but that was spooky.

Finally, the explanation of what we believe about purgatory was excellent, i.e., it made perfect sense.

The video is copyright 2010 Trans Video Communications.

“The intelligent faithful don’t need trinkets like this to justify their belief, surely?”

Sometimes one runs across an article that so aptly summarizes a point of view that it takes your breath away.  That is especially so when the point of view is articulated by someone whose error is matched only by his ignorance.  An example of this crossed my path recently.

The Shroud of Turin is mysterious.  A preponderance of the evidence, if not clear and convincing evidence, supports the idea that it was the burial shroud of Christ, the shroud that covered His body at the moment of His Resurrection.  If proven, the implications are breathtaking: we would have physical evidence not only that Christ lived, but that He conquered death.

As a result, an almost panicky body of writing has developed attempting to debunk the Shroud’s connection to Christ.  Some points are worthwhile. We will never be able to conclusively demonstrate the Shroud’s connection to Christ simply because no reliable chain of evidence carries us back to the tomb.  (Of course, this is just another example of religious and specifically Christian claims being subject to higher, impossible to meet standards of proof).

The recent discovery that the Shroud’s image may have been produced by extremely intense ultraviolet radiation set the so-smart-we’re dumb set into another round of the vapors.  Perhaps one of the best examples of such hand wringing came from one Tom Chivers, who holds the exalted position of “Assistant Comment Editor” for the Telegraph newspaper.  In response to the news from Italy, Mr. Chivers quickly manned the barricades with a wonderful post titled “The Turin Shroud Is Fake. Get Over It.”  

This is quite an assertion.  Mr. Chivers, “Assistant Comment Editor,” it appears, knows for certain that the Shroud is fake .  Surprisingly, Assistant Comment Editor Chivers does not explain what the Shroud is, which you would think he would do since he KNOWS it is not what those Christians think it is.  Wow! A question that has baffled scientists for more than a century has been resolved by an Assistant Comment Editor for the Telegraph.  (Maybe the Telegraph should promote him to a full-fledged Comment Editor.)  What groundbreaking evidence does Mr. Chivers advance for this assertion? The debunked (or at least questionable) radio carbon dating from the 70’s. Oh, my, bestill my afluttering heart.  Mr. Chivers, of course, does not answer exactly how the 13th or 14th Century artist (assuming it was art — Mr. Chivers does not deign to tell us what the Shroud “is;” only that it is not, not, what those Christians say it is.)  He also notes that St. John’s Gospel mentions two burial cloths.  Finally, he states that John Calvin was skeptical, which of all things is the most revealing comment.

All of this writing, however, only the lead up to Mr. Chivers’ deepest insight.  He wrote:

“The intelligent faithful don’t need trinkets like this to justify their belief, surely?”

This is simply classic: a combined ad hominem deprecation of one’s rhetorical opponents.  Presumably, “intelligent” works both as a psychic goodie for those who agree with him (if you agree with me, Mr. Chivers implies, you qualify as “intelligent”) and a slam on those who don’t.  No reasons needed; only self-regard and the more of it the better.  The choice of the word “trinket” is even better.  No matter what you think the Shroud of Turin is, it is not a trinket — a small ornament of little value.  It is large — more than 14 feet in length — and priceless.  Perhaps, trinket means large and priceless in England.

But Mr. Chivers unwittingly stumbled on a very important point.  The point of the Shroud is that it reminds us that God became man.  God, an ineffable spirit, became a human being in a very specific place at a very specific time in history.  He had features.  He had a voice.  He was tall or short.  He was strong.  He ate. He drank.  He was one of us in all things but sin.  Why did God do that?  Why didn’t he continue to interact with us as on an ineffable, intellectual plane?  While we do not need the Shroud of Turin specifically, we did need Christ to become man.  Why?

The answer is well beyond your humble blogger.  But part of it is this.  God treats us like persons.  Mark Shea put it best in one of my favorite quotations:

For all the folk notions in the press that God thinks he is the Great and Terrible Oz, it appears the reality is something much different: God treats us, not like cringing, mindless slaves, but like persons. And persons ask questions.

Not only do persons ask questions, they relate to others concretely through sight, sound, smell, and touch.  I wonder if Mr. Chivers ever received a perfumed note from his girlfriend.  I wonder how he reacted.  Did he say, “Intelligent persons in a relationship don’t need such trinkets, surely?”  I doubt it.  I think he was happy to receive it and hold on to it because it was a concrete reminder of his affection for her.  On their most recent date, I am sure Mr. Chivers did not refuse to hold her hand, saying drily “Intelligent persons in a relationship don’t need to hold hands to know that we love each other, surely?”  I doubt there’d be another date if he did.

God’s approach to humanity is the same.  He could have remained an ineffable Spirit, complete in His perfections.  But He wanted us to love Him and if relating to us in a concrete form in a historical place and time was what it would take, then so be it.  Again, the insight is that God relates to us as persons.  He meets us much more than halfway — sort of a cosmic “come as you are.”

The answer to Mr. Chivers’ snark is this: the “intelligent” faithful do not turn the faith into a dry, inhuman intellectual exercise that demands that we cease to be persons.  For Mr. Chivers, God does not relate to us as persons, but as something else entirely — something that does not exist.  Our faith is a faith of sights, sounds, smells, and pageant of the whole human experience, concretely lived.  It is as much the stately beauty surrounding  a Carthusian monastery as it is the sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital ward in which a priest is administering the final Anointing and Viaticum.

So while the Shroud may not be the burial cloth of Jesus — we will never know for certain this side of Eternity — it is important because it is one thing among many through which God relates to us, not as automatons, but as people.  The Shroud reminds us that “smells and bells” are important and that a religion that posits a purely intellectual relationship between a god and man is a false one, no matter how intelligent the faithful are or how small the trinkets.

"Thy Face, I seek, O Lord"

What The Ascension Tells Us About Heaven

The Ascension tells us that Heaven is at least three dimensional.  How do we know that?  We know for certain that Christ’s body ascended and is now “seated at the right hand of the Father,” i.e., is in Heaven.  Christ’s body was three-dimensional and remains three-dimensional.  It follows that there must be at least three dimensions in Heaven.

photo source 

A New Lourdes Miracle!

(photo source)

London’s Daily Mail is reporting that a French TV repairman walked 1,000 miles after being miraculously healed at Lourdes:

A TV repair man with a paralysed left leg went on a 1,000-mile-plus hike after being cured following a trip to Lourdes, it was claimed today.

The incredible recovery of Serge Francois, 40, is now set to become the 68th official miracle at the Roman Catholic shrine in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in south west France.

After regaining the use of his leg, Mr Francois walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim’s route spanning France and Spain, and known in English as The Way of St James.

. . .

Mr Francois reported what happened to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL) and 20 doctors have now concluded that it was indeed ‘remarkable’.

Archbishop Emmanuel Delmas, Bishop of Angers, said: ‘This healing can be considered a personal gift from God to man, as an event of grace, as a sign of Christ the Saviour.’

If it is confirmed, this will be only the 68th miracle.  According to the story, there have been more than 7,000 unexplained healings.

You can read more:

Local Shroud of Turin Event

A Church Guy passed this along and it looks interesting:

A Vatican approved replica of the Shroud is now on display at the Ukranian National Shrine of the Holy Family.  Its website with all of the details is here.  Viewing details from the website:

The Shroud of Turin replica has been lent by the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia to the Ukrainian National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington D.C. for display from March 6 through April 14, 2011. The exhibit will be open at the Shrine on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during this time period. Groups, or those that wish to arrange another time to visit, may contact the Shrine by telephone (202-526-3737) or e-mail ( to arrange for visits.

Our Lady of Good Help — An Approved Marian Apparition In The United States

Our Sunday Visitor is reporting that the Church has approved an 1859 Marian apparition that occurred in Champion, Wisconsin.  The Blessed Mother appeared to Adele Brise three times.  The last time, according to the story, the Blessed Mother asked Adele:

Upon returning home with her companions, the apparition appeared a final time. When Brise asked the identity of the apparition as she was instructed, it replied, “I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.”

Brise then asked the apparition what she desired of her, and the apparition replied: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. … Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”

Interestingly, the Church has two levels of approval for events such as this.  The first is to permit worship and other religious activities to occur at the location.  The second level is a declaration that the event is of “supernatural origin” and worthy of belief by Christians.  Note well, though, that belief is not binding on us, the Church only proposes it as worthy of belief.   Here is the proclamation from Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken:

“I declare with moral certainty and in accord with the norms of the Church that the events, apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and I do hereby approve these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful,” he said.

Mary’s message is straightforward: catechesis of children.  Isn’t that one of our most important duties as Catholic dads?

If you are interested in more information, check out the OSV story linked above, the webapage of the Diocese of Green Bay that is devoted to this issue, and the website of Our Lady of Good Help.