Exorcist expertise sought after Saskatoon 'possession'

A case of what is being called possible demonic possession in Saskatoon has prompted local church officials to consider the need for an exorcist.

Bishop looks for inspiration from Calgary diocese

A case of what is being called possible demonic possession in Saskatoon has prompted local church officials to consider the need for an exorcist.

CBC News spoke with a Catholic priest involved in the case, which arose in March, and agreed not to identify participants in order to protect their privacy.

'There are perhaps more stories about exorcisms in Hollywood than there are on the ground.' —Bishop Don Bolen

According to church officials, a priest was called to a Saskatoon home by a woman who said her uncle showed signs of being possessed by the devil. The woman believed a priest's blessing could help the distraught man.

At the home, the priest encountered a shirtless middle-aged man, slouched on a couch and holding his head in his hands.

The man had used a sharp instrument to carve the word Hell on his chest.

When the priest entered the room, the man spoke in the third person, saying "He belongs to me. Get out of here," using a strange voice.

The priest told CBC News that he had never seen anything like this and was concerned enough to call police, for safety reasons.

He said he then blessed the man, saying he belonged to the good side, to Jesus. With that, the man's voice returned to normal for a short time.

Not a formal exorcism

The unusual voice returned when police arrived, and the priest continued to bless the man until he resumed a more normal composure.

CBC News followed up on the incident to learn if an exorcism had been performed, but church officials said a formal exorcism did not happen.

Bishop Don Bolen explained that the ritual of exorcism is a very structured exercise. He said it was not clear if the Saskatoon man was possessed or experiencing a mental breakdown.

"I would think there are perhaps more stories about exorcisms in Hollywood than there are on the ground," Bolen said. "But the Catholic Church teaches that there is a force of darkness, and that God is stronger than that darkness."

Church leaders in Saskatoon have been considering whether Saskatoon needs a trained exorcist.

The last person in the city with formal training, Rev. Joseph Bisztyo, retired in 2003.

Nor does the Regina archdiocese have an exorcist, so Bolen said they are looking to other locations.

"We're kind of looking at what the diocese of Calgary does — they have a special commission for spiritual discernment," Bolen said.

He explained that the commission meets with people connected to a possible possession, "to ask whether there's some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation," he said, adding the commission is also "open to the possibility of demonic possession."

Catholics are not the only ones examining what to do when presented with possible cases of possession.

The 'work of the devil'

Anglican priest Colin Clay, who has worked with Bisztyo, told CBC News the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries.

The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.

"The churches have to respond," Clay said. "And they'll either do it by saying — some churches will say — 'Well that's the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we've got to deal with it,' or the churches will say, 'Well there's certainly evil in the world, whether there's an actual Satan or devil, there's certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people's lives,' and so we've got to respond to it."

Clay said he does not dismiss how evil can affect people.

"I take evil very, very seriously," Clay said. "I take the effect that it has on people very seriously, but I don't think that there's any quick fix. The word exorcism worries me a little bit, because it's been given a Hollywood sort of flavour to it, and it's not as simple as that. You don't just say you've got the devil, I'm going to drive it out."

Like the bishop, Clay advocates a measured approach to dealing with claims of possession.

With files from CBC's Dan Zakreski