A conservative news and views blog.

Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Exorcists

Carol Iannone, writing in the National Review Online, discusses the actual story behind the exorcism of a young boy in St. Louis which Peter Blatty would adapt into the groundbreaking film The Exorcist. The case is the only documented example of demonic possession in America, and the exorcism was conducted at St. Louis University by Jesuit priests. I thought this would be an interesting piece to blog about since I knew Father Halloran, who was then a young noviciate assisting with the exorcism, and because I attended SLU and picked up a number of interesting stories (which may or may not be true) about what happened.

The exorcism was performed in 1949 by a team of 4 priests and two noviciates led by Fr. William Bowdern (who was something of a legend at SLU for other reasons) and performed at Firman Desloge Hospital (owned by Saint Louis University) on the South Campus, and later moved to Jesuit Hall next to Francis Xavier (College) Church. The exorcism lasted weeks (exorcisms have been known to last years!) and was terribly draining to the participants. Many of the scenes from the Exorcist movie were said to have occured; the boy`s body floating off the bed, projectile vomiting, supernatural physical power, etc. Fr. Halloran had his nose broken by the boy while trying to restrain him. Messages appeared on the boy`s chest and stomach. The most difficult aspect, however, was the psychological attack made by the demon on the exorcists. The demon knew everyone`s weakness and tailored his attacks to demoralize the team.

Father Walter Halloran was at St. Louis University High School when I attended, and I had him for a class in philosophy. (SLUH is a college-prep boys school loosely associated with Saint Louis University and my alma mater.) I didn`t know until much later that he had participated in the exorcism. He always struck me as grumpy and hard-headed, and I now understand why he was grumpy and hard-headed; fighting a physical and spiritual battle with the minions of Hell tends to do that to a man! Much like soldiers who witness horrible things in battle, he (nor any of the others involved in the case) never discussed the exorcism, and I suspect no one would care to bring those bad memories back. I`m sure he had nightmares for the rest of his life.

For those of you who don`t know, exorcism is a specific ritual which can only be performed on orders from high authority in the Catholic Church, and only those specifically authorized are allowed to perform the ritual. A lengthy investigation is conducted to determine if there are any grounds for an exorcism. Most investigations turn up naturalistic causes for the apparent demonic possession, and so the Church does not authorize the ritual. The Church requires documentation of miracles performed by the demon, documentable evidence of supernatural knowledge, etc. The ritual must be performed over and over, and usually requires a team of exorcists who may work months, or even years to drive the devil out. Often it kills the possessed individual, and often it injures or even kills the exorcists themselves. No one in their right mind wants to be part of an exorcism.

Like all exorcisms, this one was gruelling and almost killed the child. Because of the violent nature of the demon and the horrible, evil sounds coming out of the room, the exorcism was moved into Jesuit Hall from the Hospital. Witnesses remarked that the most horrifying noises were heard coming from the room where the boy was housed. A number of people witnessed a vision of the Archangel Michael in the sky at the final moment, and the bells at College Church began ringing of their own accord. The boy, having been freed of the devil, remembered nothing.

The room where the exorcism was held was on the top floor of Jesuit Hall, and the entire floor was supposedly closed after the ritual. It is said that an elderly priest became possessed at this time, and they were unable to drive the demon out so he was locked up by himself until he died. These stories may be urban legends, although I have heard them from some fairly credible sources. None of the Jesuits I know would confirm or deny them.

The passing of Fr. Halloran prompted Carol Iannone to write about the exorcism in National Review, and so I decided I would throw in my two cents worth. (I really wish this had appeared around Holloween.) The point to bear in mind about all of this is that the priests involved were sinners and were weak, but their faith made them fearless and with Christ they were victorious! As Carol points out, these men were true priests willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING to defend an innocent child. They stood firm against the gates of Hell literally, and they did not back down! The world definitely needs more like them!

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by