What is a baptismal exorcism? Why is it necessary to perform the ritual of casting out evil spirits and renounce Satan before dying and rising with Christ in the waters of baptism? Is the ritual of exorcism involving catechumens linked to the modern practice of exorcism? Let us try to provide answers to these questions.
Reasons for the Exorcism
In ancient times, Baptism was preceded by a long period of catechization, i. e., the instruction in the Christian faith and the introduction to the commandments. Those who wished to become members of the Church and be adopted by God through Jesus Christ not only studied the Christian faith and practiced virtues, but also repented of their past lives marked by sin and ignorance of the true God. This process of repentance and change of their lives was accompanied by the ritual of exorcism. Exorcism (Greek: έφορχίζειν – to spell) is a special ceremony during which the ministers of the Church, by prayer, laying hands, sprinkling with holy water and anointing with holy oil, cast a spell, i. e. command in the Name of Jesus Christ the fallen angels to leave the catechumen who wants to be united with Christ and die for a sinful life in the servitude of the devil.
According to the Christian faith, people lost their vital connection with God because of the Fall, and are thus in one way or another under the power of the devil, who through various temptations, lies, and sinful passions diverts man from the Path of Life and leads him to the path of death. Of course, not all people who do not know Christ, are under demons’ sway, because every person is the image of God; therefore the Lord invisibly works to protect even those who do not know Him. However, the Scripture gives many examples of people who were serving God but fell prey to demonic powers. The most striking example from the Old Testament is King Saul, who is said to have been troubled by an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). The New Testament evidence of the possession of evil spirits and their expulsion by the Lord Jesus and His disciples is widely known. The Church, having received the commandment from the Lord to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils (Matthew 10:8), considered it fitting to carry out exorcisms not only for the obviously possessed, but also for all former Gentiles who wanted to become Christians, because paganism, according to the Christians, is idolatry, i. e. worship of demons, and therefore dependence on them.
The Church history and the accounts of the Holy Fathers tell us about the special rite of exorcism that took place during the period of catechization. This rite existed since the first centuries and is mentioned by Tertullian (Apology, 23) and Origen (Against Celsius VII.4). It is known that exorcism prayers were offered throughout the period of catechization. For this purpose, the Church elected holy men who, due to their righteous lives, had the bishop’s blessing to prepare those willing to receive baptism and to read over them the prayers to cast out demons. Gradually, a special rank of exorcists was formed within the lower clergy, and this important ministry was entrusted to them. Over time, a liturgical rite of appointment to serve as an exorcist developed, which in the West was accomplished with the blessing of a bishop, who gave the exorcist a divine service book with exorcisms and said, “Take it and learn it by heart, and have the power to lay hands on the possessed, baptized or catechumens” (Rule VII of the Statuta Ecclesiæ Antiqua). In the West, exorcists as a separate ecclesiastical degree existed for a very long time, while in the East they soon gave way to priests.
The Rite of Baptismal Exorcism
As the Church Tradition suggests, the central stage of the exorcism of catechumens was during the Lent when they were preparing to be buried with Christ by baptism on Easter and to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). On Great Friday, they held the final exorcism prayers, in which the bishop often took part. According to an ancient text, those who exhibited the effects of evil spirits during the exorcism were not allowed to be baptized until they were purified (Testamentum Domini). Prayers were recited over the catechumens, hands were laid on them, and according to the testimony of Blessed Augustine (On Marriage and Concupiscence II:50), there was also a blowing of air, which remains to this day in Orthodox Baptism. St. Cyril of Jerusalem also speaks about blowing: “…and one breath of the exorcist is fire to the invisible enemies” (Instruction to Catechumens, 16.19). The person being baptized made the last step in casting out demons. After the rite of exorcism, the new Christian renounced Satan, addressing him personally and spitting on him, turning to the west (which symbolized darkness and power of the devil). Then he turned to the east, to the altar, and united with Christ, professing his allegiance to Him as King and God, and read aloud the Creed. After the denial of Satan, those who came to be baptized were anointed with a special oil of joy, marking reconciliation with God, the reception of His mercy, healing from sins, and help in spiritual struggle. The Orthodox Church still observes these ancient customs of Baptism.
Present-Day Practice of Exorcism
The present-day exorcism is a special prayer sequence described in the Trebnik, usually performed by a priest over a demon-possessed person to expel the demon from the afflicted person. Is baptismal exorcism connected with this practice of exorcism? Both yes and no. On the one hand, even baptized people who lead an evidently sinful and godless life can fall under the sway of Satan if God allows it to happen, and then they need to go through exorcism. We know of thousands of cases in which saints cast out demons. However, the attitude of the Church towards modern exorcisms is very cautious. First, there are far fewer cases of real demonic possession than of mental illness, and priests must clearly distinguish where they need to use spiritual weapons, and where medical help of psychiatrists and other specialists is preferable. Secondly, exorcisms could only be performed with the blessing of the bishop since ancient times, while nowadays it is common to perform exorcisms without the approval of the Church hierarchy. Finally, exorcism is a serious thing and can be undertaken only by those Christians who live a holy life. More often than not, they are priests and monks who have cleansed themselves from passions, and there are few such people and they do not take on this cross deliberately. The Orthodox tradition allows a possessed person who does not speak blasphemy to receive communion with the Holy Sacrament, and what can be higher and more effective than the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ? That is why some experienced clergymen said that demonic affliction could be part of God’s Plan, and may require a long treatment with repentance and partaking of the Holy Eucharist.