On Monday 14 August, Fr Michael Shadbolt, who served as the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s official exorcist for 12 years, reflected on his time in this role in a talk given at God and Beer, a regular event hosted by the Knights of the Southern Cross Victoria. Although the initial appointment came as a surprise, experience has convinced him of the ongoing need for the ministry of exorcism.

‘The ministry of exorcism has always existed in the Church,’ Fr Michael said. ‘It’s there in the gospels. Jesus always cast the evil spirits out.’

In the modern era, there has been a downplaying of exorcism as a necessary ministry, Fr Michael thinks, but certain figures, such as the Italian priest Fr Gabriele Amorth, as well as Hollywood’s collection of films exploring the subject, have popularised it again.

Ordained a priest in 1964, it wasn’t until 2011 that he was appointed exorcist by then Archbishop Denis Hart. (According to canon law, solemn exorcisms are only to be performed by priests who have been expressly authorised by their bishop to do so, and only after the person requesting exorcism has undergone a screening process to rule out mental illness.) He said that in his earliest years in the ministry, he was a bit of a ‘scaredy-cat’, since some of the manifestations—when the demonic forces possessing a person show themselves during the rite of exorcism—were frightening for an inexperienced novice.

Nevertheless, there are things people don’t understand about the ministry of exorcism, he said. One is that films tend to ‘grossly exaggerate’ the kinds of manifestations that take place, ‘but not entirely so’. Hollywood is ‘fascinated’ by the manifestations, but one of the only films he has seen in recent times that gets closer to the truth is the 2023 movie by Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, Nefarious.

Another is that a manifestation is not the only reason an exorcist might be needed. He described other phenomena such as spiritual oppression, obsession and vexation.

Oppression, he explained, is the experience of being ‘under pretty serious attack’ by evil spirits, but they haven’t gotten ‘into the house’, so to speak. The person is not technically possessed. Obsession refers to darker obsessive thoughts that can often come about through the experience of trauma, so calmly praying the rite of exorcism during this time can be very beneficial for people, Fr Michael explained.

Vexation ‘is a strange thing,’ he said. This is the experience, ‘usually at night’, of things happening in the house that someone can’t explain. Fr Michael shared the encounter he had with one well-educated man who was too afraid to tell anyone about these experiences for fear he would be shamed. Fr Michael prayed the rite of exorcism with him, and the experience of spiritual vexation eventually stopped.

Interestingly, while Jesus was able to cast out demons instantly in the gospels, an exorcist might need many sessions, sometimes over a period of months, before the person finds healing and deliverance.

Sometimes, if the exorcism isn’t working, it might be because the person is faking. ‘We’ve all seen the film, or read the book,’ he explained. ‘You can make it up.’

If there is one thing that an exorcist learns to pick up on, however, it’s ‘the hatred in the eyes’ when a spirit is manifesting in a person. ‘That is very difficult to emulate.’

Ultimately, the ministry of exorcism relies on the prayers in the rite. Exorcists are called ‘to have radical trust in Jesus,’ Fr Michael said. An exorcist must be calm, refrain from engaging in a dialogue with any manifesting spirits and simply keep praying. ‘The power is in the prayer. It’s the power of Jesus.’

Although exorcism is a subject many people find fascinating, and one Fr Michael believes people would do well to learn more about, ‘You don’t have to be an exorcist to be in the front line of the battle against Satan.’ The ‘front line’ is the Church’s ordinary work of celebrating the Mass and the sacraments, and living in a state of grace.

‘That’s prevention,’ he said. ‘We’ve got to be out there preaching the word of God, calling people to faith, and calling them to this deep commitment of their lives to Jesus.’

Fr Michael reaffirmed a saying of Fr Gabriele Amorth: ‘One Confession is worth ten exorcisms. And that sums it up very well.’

Fr Michael’s recently published book, Exorcism: Reflections of a Catholic exorcist (2023), is meant to serve both as a training guide for future priests in the ministry and as a formative book for the laity.