Eight hundred years ago in Belgium, as a third of Europe was dying of the Bubonic Plague, a group of men quit their jobs and dedicated themselves to tending the sick and the dying. They became known as the Alexian Brothers, named after St Alexis of Rome.
The new religious order distinguished itself by accepting patients no one else wanted, including those who suffered from mental disorders. Caring for the mentally ill then became a charism of the Alexian Brothers.
They came to America in the 1800’s, starting hospitals in Chicago in 1866 and St Louis in 1869. As a young man my father studied nursing under the Alexian Brothers. In 1955, when he was 20 years old, my father did clinical studies at their St Louis hospital. He was assigned to the psyche ward.
Strangely, there was a room on the psyche ward, on the fifth floor that had been sealed off since 1949. People asked questions, but the hospital staff remained tight-lipped about the room; one rumored to be associated with strange noises and dark phenomenon.
An exorcism had taken place in that room in 1949.
In January of that year a thirteen-year-old Maryland boy was given a Ouija board by his spiritualist aunt. She then died, and the boy became hooked on the game, playing it for hours on end, and using the board in attempts to contact his dead aunt.
Strange noises, like the constant dripping of water and a sound like claws scratching under the boy’s bedroom floor began to be heard. Then his parents started noticing scratch marks, welts and bruises on the boy. The physical abnormalities were coupled with an acute change in personality, as the once quiet and timid boy became angry and violent. But it was only after the boy started speaking in Latin, a language he had no way of knowing, did his parents seek help for their only child.
After consulting a medical doctor, psychologists, psychiatrists and a psychic, the parents finally turned to their Protestant minister. After observing the boy’s bed, with the boy on it, moving back and forth and rising off the floor, the shocked minister, long leery of “superstitious” Catholicism, told the boy’s parents, “You have to see a Catholic priest. The Catholics know about things like this.”
Shortly thereafter the family moved to St Louis to live with relatives. A niece who went to the Jesuit St Louis University told her priest-professor about her cousin. And after an evaluation of the boy, an exorcist priest, known to be “totally fearless” was sent by the archbishop to perform an exorcism.
The exorcism went on for over a month, during which the exorcist and his priest-assistants “endured unspeakable insults, blasphemies, filthy language and even physical violence from the devils who possessed the boy.” The priests also, at the beginning of the process, heard the demon claim that if the boy would say just one word, the devil would depart from him. But the demon made a promise that would not happen.
The priests and hospital staff were forbidden to speak of the exorcism, but years later the priest’s diary of the event was found in an abandoned desk drawer. An author got his hands on it and a best-selling book loosely based on the events titled The Exorcist was published in 1971. Hollywood made it into a huge movie in 1973.
Those productions, however, left out some important information. Recall that five years ago, 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s appearance to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. In July of 1917 Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of hell. Our Lady literally scared the heck out of those children.
When the priest first visited the possessed boy on March 11, 1949, he found him visibly upset by an evil presence in the room. The priest “boldly placed his beads around the terrified boy’s neck and began to pray the Rosary.” He then told the boy about the three shepherd children around his age, who were given the special privilege of seeing the Virgin Mary and praying the Rosary with her. Fascinated with the Fatima story, the boy inquired about the Catholic Faith and over the next few weeks, he took instruction, was baptized and received First Communion. His parents converted as well.
April 10, 1949 was Palm Sunday. For safety and privacy reasons, the boy was admitted to the psyche ward at Alexian Brothers Hospital. Why Alexian Brothers? Because they were the only ones who would take him.
On the day after Easter the demon, in his guttural and diabolic voice taunted the priests about the one word the demon had said the boy would never say. Then they were stunned as the voice coming from the boy changed. No longer was the voice vile and disgusting, it was warm and full of confidence. The boy was in a trance when out of his mouth came these words: “I am Saint Michael and I command you to leave the body in the name of Dominus.” The boy then went into the worst convulsions since the start of the exorcism. When the convulsions ceased the boy said, “He is gone.”
The boy could not remember the words that came out of his mouth. He only remembered seeing St Michael with a fiery sword in his right hand and with his left hand pointing down to a pit from which both heat and the devil’s resistant laughter emanated. And the boy recalled St Michael smiled at him and spoke. But he only remembered one word he said – Dominus. That was the key word, the Latin word for Lord.
The boy went on to live a normal healthy life. He got married and named his first son Michael. The priest-exorcist seemed to go on living and working as usual, but his relatives said that until his death in 1983 the priest suffered physically and mentally from what he endured during the 1949 exorcism.
Some interesting theological points can be adduced from all this: First off, as many exorcists will attest, the devil hates Latin, the sacred and ritual language of the Church. Secondly, though in modern times the Church has seemed to be tight-lipped about him, the devil is real. Bishop Sheen, who died in 1979 wrote:
“Very few people believe in the devil these days, which suits the devil very well. He is always circulating the news of his own death … Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.”
The good news is that today, belief in the devil is on the rise. The bad news is that the belief in Christ and St Michael the Archangel is in free fall. The more people turn away from God, the more they turn to other things – like satanic things. In the process they open themselves up to demonic possession. This should shock no one. For we live in a demonic culture.
People laugh when they hear me say things like this. That is because they are, like the people who laughed at Noah (until it started raining), blinded by sin. They laugh upon hearing that the devil hates Latin, and words like Dominus. You see that is a word which denotes superiority. The devil hates it, for he refuses to bow down and serve.
“I exorcise you, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Come forth and depart from this servant of God. For he commands you, accursed and damned one, he who walked upon the sea and stretched out his hand to the sinking Peter” (Roman Ritual, Rite of Baptism).
That is from the Roman Rite of Baptism which was in use for centuries. We were given a new baptism rite in 1970 and they cut that part out. Some today might be taken aback at the dramatic command of the priest. They might ask themselves, “Did the priest think the baby was possessed?” No, he did not. And that leads to another theological point:
At baptism one is re-born, given new birth. But he also dies. The old self has to make way for the new self, the Christian self. And so, he goes down into the water where he dies, like all those people who laughed at Noah, and like Pharaoh’s chariots chasing the Hebrews into the Red Sea. At baptism sin and death get buried, drowned in the water. But the one baptized stretches out his hand for Christ, and he rises out of the water a new creation, marked for Christ.
And all of this is not just a feeling, or a nice sentiment. No, it’s a fact bearing eternal consequences. The baptismal process is then a microcosm of one’s life. That makes baptism much more than a smiley-faced “welcome to the family” event. You see, the devil wants your soul. But Christ wants it too. So there is a war on for it, taking place on a spiritual battlefield in an otherworldly realm that you cannot even begin to imagine.
This is why you get tempted throughout life. This is why Christ went out to the desert to get tempted first. He did that to show you how to endure a life filled with temptation brought on by a person of superior intelligence. Yes, the devil is a real person. Your Catechism states: … evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One who opposes God (2851).
And so, take courage. Satan wanted stones turned into bread. That was nothing. Christ turns bread into his Body and Blood to feed your soul, to nourish and sustain you during your short life on earth fraught with temptation. Through His Church Christ gives you all the tools you need for victory. All you have to do is use them. And He gives you your weapon, the cross. All you have to do is carry it. Then you will laugh with resistance at the devil. And you will laugh for all eternity. Catholics know about things like this.
For more on the story of this exorcism, click here.