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Healing Line

Healing Line

The Real Story Behind The Exorcist

by Francis MacNutt
July 1995

Just about the time you read this issue my new book, Deliverance From Evil Spirits, (Chosen Books) should be in the bookstore. Since a large part of our work here at CHM is praying for deliverance, I am naturally eager to learn even more, so when I found a book called Possessed by Thomas Allen (Bantam Books*) in a local bookstore, I scanned and bought it. This book is a fine account of the real–life exorcism upon which William Blatty based his novel and controversial movie, The Exorcist.

The movie painted a dismal picture of the power of God to "deliver us from evil." If you saw the movie you were probably like me, believing that it represented a defeat for Christians to end up with two dead priests as the price for freeing a girl from Satan's grip. No wonder Christians are terrified by the thought of exorcism, and very few priests or ministers want to become involved in prayer for deliverance (if they believe in the demonic realm at all).

I am glad to report that, in the real case, none of the priests involved died during the exorcism or immediately afterwards, even though the demon, speaking through the boy (in the actual case it was a boy who was possessed, not a girl) threatened the priests with death. The principal exorcist, Fr. Bowdern, S.J., died at the ripe age of 86, many years after the exorcism took place in 1950. Two of the other priests who were most actively involved died at the ages of 80 and 72, and two others are alive today. The boy himself, now 60, lives a normal life. Clearly not the defeat, or at best partial victory, depicted so graphically by the sensational movie.

Because of limited space I can only touch upon several key features of this case. In the first place, the precipitating cause of the possession seems to have been the boy's playing the Ouija board, after being instructed in its practice by his aunt. Gradually he began to exhibit bizarre behavior: his entire bed would shake, furniture would fly across the room, and a mattress floated across a room bearing him on top. As the possession progressed bleeding scratches erupted on his body, like claw marks.

The boy's family were Lutheran and, naturally, contacted their pastor. He approached the case from a parapsychological point of view as poltergeist activity, but this didn't help. He was humble enough to suggest that the family seek the help of a Roman Catholic priest (Martin Luther, who certainly believed in Satan, had swept out the Catholic rite of exorcism because he thought it made a "display" of the Devil).

After a botched attempt by a priest in Washington, who really didn't know what he was doing and ended up with 100 stitches from a gash that the boy inflicted, the family traveled to St. Louis where they had Catholic relatives. Here they received help from Archbishop Ritter, who assigned Fr. Bowdern, then the Jesuit pastor of the St. Francis Xavier College Church, to perform the exorcism with as much secrecy as possible. (Incidentally, I used to go to College Church as a child and was confirmed there.)

Fr. Bowdern, chose several other Jesuits to help him, and almost every evening for weeks they would pray for the boy, sometimes well into the night; an exhausting schedule as this all took place after Fr. Bowdern had finished his regular pastoral duties. During their times of prayer for his freedom, the demons' reactions were so violent that the boy usually had to be restrained. Even with the help of restraints, the work was loathsome because the boy would spout obscenities at the priests and spit copious amounts of saliva all over them with uncanny accuracy, even with his eyes closed!

Fr. Bowdern was inexperienced in exorcism, and had to learn by studying the few books at his disposal. Consequently his procedure was governed by the official rite of the Roman Catholic Church; for the most part, he repeated over and over again these written prayers. The only question he asked of the spirits were their names and the date and hour of their departure. (In addition to finding out the spirits' names, we also believe that it's of utmost importance to find out how the spirits gained an entrance into the person's life, before we can learn how close off these spiritual doors of access and get rid of the spiritual infestation).

Fr. Bowdern was really heroic in his dogged determination to keep after these spirits in spite of the lengthy, disgusting struggle and the taunting of the spirits. As the battle progressed, the spirits even wrote out in bloody welts on the boy's body words like "Hell" and "Spite," their response to the priest's prayers. One of the things they also observed is that the possessed boy (called "Robbie" in this book) could not remember anything that took place during the actual times of possession; during the daytime Robbie was usually fairly normal, but he would go into a trance like state at night and the demons would manifest themselves.

Towards the end of the exorcism, after weeks of prayer, the Alexian brothers, whose hospital had now become the site for the nightly struggle, brought a three–foot statue of St. Michael the Archangel into Robbie's room in the psychiatric ward. Prayers were increased to ask God to send St. Michael, the traditional defender of the faithful, to intervene in the battle for Robbie. The statue depicted a winged Michael protected by body armor, holding a spear aimed at the throat of the writhing serpent under his feet (not unlike the 16th Century engraving of St. Michael on my new book). This took place, appropriately, on Good Friday.

The Jesuits were hoping for triumph on Easter Sunday but, instead, there was another violent confrontation, with Robbie physically attacking the priests who were trying to bring him communion. After he punched and kicked the priests, Robbie had to be strapped to his bed, screaming and spitting.

For a while Robbie even seemed worse. There was such a chill in the room that Fr. Bowdern had taken to wearing an overcoat. Another amazing development: Robbie seemed to be able to discern whether a person was living in a state of sin. If a person with unconfessed sin entered the room Robbie wouldn't react, but if a person was in good standing with God, Robbie would start screaming and bellowing. Once a physician came to examine Robbie and there was no reaction. Bowdern apparently asked the physician if he was "in a state of grace." The doctor was shaken up by this, left and went to confession, and came back half an hour later, reassured this time by being greeted as he entered the room with Robbie shrieking and roaring!

Then on Easter Monday, along with the usual violent struggles, out of Robbie's mouth came a new voice, clear and masterful, "Satan! I am St. Michael, and I command you, Satan, and the other evil spirits to leave the body in the name 'Dominus' [the Latin word for 'Lord']. Immediately! Now! Now! Now!" For a gripping seven minutes, Robbie screamed and twisted. Then Robbie emerged from his trance and calmly announced, "He's gone."

Robbie shared his experience of the event with the priests. In an internal vision he had seen a beautiful figure with flowing hair, standing in brilliant light. Robbie felt that the figure was an angel in bodily form, dressed in armor. This angel held a fiery sword and he pointed down to a cave where the devil stood, surrounded by flames. The devil charged and tried to fight but the angel uttered the word "Dominus;" at this the devil and his demons ran back to a cave and bars appeared to seal the entrance. At this point something in Robbie snapped and he suddenly became relaxed and happy.

How do you explain all this? Did St. Michael temporarily possess Robbie? My guess is that God took pity on the priests who had been doggedly faithful, but knew very little beyond repeating the prayers in the rite, and sent the Archangel Michael who traditionally has defended the faithful from Satan, to help them out by saying the definitive prayer of exorcism.

A final confirmation of victory occurred soon after the exorcism was finished. A group of Jesuits were gathered at an evening service in the College Church when "Suddenly, the shadowed loftiness of the great soaring apse blazed in light. The Jesuits looked up and saw, filling the immense space above the altar ... St. Michael, flaming sword in hand, defending the good and warding off evil" (p. 244).


Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. July 1995 Issue