RCIA vs. Hollywood—the true meaning of “exorcism”

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIATo fully understand the purpose of the scrutinies, it helps to have a little history. The three scrutinies that we celebrate within the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are derived, in part, from the fourth century church’s practice of exorcism.

The word “exorcism” sets many of us on edge. Most of us know the “exorcisms” portrayed in Hollywood movies are not what is intended in the celebration of the scrutinies. But what exactly is an exorcism in the context of baptismal preparation?

The mystery of evil

Both the Hollywood exorcism and the baptismal exorcism have to do with evil. In the Hollywood version, evil becomes personified in the form of a demon who often has a name. The possessed person is a helpless slave to the diabolic whims of the demon.

In a baptismal context, the unbaptized person is susceptible to the temptations to evil that surround us every day. The baptized are strengthened by the grace of the sacraments to overcome their temptations. The unbaptized do not yet fully experience that sacramental grace. So the scrutinies, and particularly exorcisms, are employed to strengthen the unbaptized elect on the final leg of their journey to initiation.

If you would like to learn more about how to celebrate the RCIA scrutinies, view the recording of our online workshop during which Diana Macalintal and Nick Wagner covered the essential do’s and don’ts for an awesome celebration. Click here for more information.
This baptismal understanding of exorcism was first fully expressed in the fourth century. The elect would gather at the cathedral every day of Lent for a minor exorcism. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem in the 350’s, explained the meaning of the daily exorcisms to his elect:

Imagine virgin gold alloyed with various foreign substances: copper, tin, iron, lead. What we are after is the gold alone.

Click Here to Get Your Free Guide for an RCIA Lenten Reflection

Three major exorcisms

John Chrysostom, who was archbishop of Constantinople at roughly the same time, and Theodore who was bishop of Mopsuestia (in Turkey), also about the same time, both referred to these daily exorcisms, but also spoke about three major exorcisms.

This is what the major exorcisms of the fourth century looked like:

Candidates stood barefoot on a sackcloth of goat’s hair (the cilicium), with their heads veiled, their outer cloak stripped off, and their arms outstretched. Then the exorcist would approach and speak “in a loud and prolonged voice” denouncing Satan. (Willian Harmless, SJ, Augstine and the Catechumenate, p. 68)

Theodore explained the meaning of this rite by using the example of a court of law. The candidate was the defendant. The devil was the plaintiff. And the exorcist was the defense lawyer.

Chrysostom had a very different explanation. He taught that the job of the exorcist was to prepare “a house for a royal visit” by cleansing the elect with “awesome words” (Harmless, page 69).

In today’s RCIA scrutinies, the penitential stance (barefoot, cloakless, standing on sackcloth) is replaced by the elect bowing their heads or kneeling.

The words and actions of the exorcism itself are no longer addressed to Satan, but to the Trinity.

  • The first part of the exorcism is addressed the Father.
  • The second part is a silent laying on of hands that is an invocation of the Holy Spirit.
  • And the conclusion is addressed to Christ. (See RCIA 154, 168, 175.)

Practical take away

While we are not shooting a Hollywood horror thriller, the prepatory exorcisms of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are nevertheless enacting a cosmic drama.

There is evil in the world, and, as part of the human condition, we are all injured and oppressed by it in some way. The scrutinies are the church’s remedy for the wounds the elect have suffered and a means of their liberation from the evil that ensnares them.

There is great power in the “awesome words” we pray over them, and we should strive to deliver them in an awesome way.

While we cannot ask the elect to stand barefoot on goat hair and we probably don’t want to yell at the devil during Sunday Mass, we can maximize the dramatic elements of the scrutinies in a way that will truly strengthen the elect for their journey toward baptism.

  1. Ask the elect to kneel (if they can) instead of merely bowing their heads. This is a much more dramatic posture, and it will create a more lasting memory for them of their liberation from darkness.
  2. Do not ask the assembly to kneel. This is a scrutiny of the elect, not of the assembly. Yes, we all need regular scrutiny, but this is not the time for an examination of conscience for the faithful.
  3. Ask the presider to rehearse the exorcism prayer and to speak it with as much power as he is able. If possible, ask him to memorize it. If that’s not possible, the presider should at least be very, very familiar with the text.
  4. Prolong the laying on of hands. The presider should spend significant time with each of the elect. If possible, the sponsors and perhaps one of the catechumenate team members should also lay hands on the elect.

By emphasizing the awesome power of the scrutiny exorcisms, we are being true to the historic roots of our ancestors in faith. And we will provide real and lasting pastoral care for the elect.

If you missed our online workshop on celebrating the scrutinies, you can still view recording. Click here for more information.

What’s your experience?

What have you done to make the scrutinies a powerful prayer of healing and liberation for the elect? Please share your insights so we can all benefit.

See also these related articles:
  1. How to save your RCIA rites from heresy
  2. Let the Scrutinies Live!
  3. Episode 8: Preparing the Elect for the RCIA Scrutinies
  4. RCIA vs. Hollywood—the true meaning of “exorcism”
  5. Episode 7: Exorcism and the mystery of evil in the RCIA

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