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What is an exorcism?

(CNN) -- When exorcism is mentioned, many people think of the head-spinning, devil-possessed lead character in the movie "The Exorcist."

Fewer people may be familiar with the non-Hollywood version of the Roman Catholic ritual that is believed to cast out devils in the name of God through fasting, prayers and the reading of the Gospel. It's a rite that is performed rarely and with much caution, and must be approved by a top bishop.

CNN's Satinder Bindra sheds new light on Mother Teresa's struggles with God, religion and subsequent exorcism (September 5)

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Letters: Mother Teresa doubted her faith, mission  

CNN learned this week that Mother Teresa had an exorcism performed on her in the later years of her life. The exorcism took place in a hospital in Kolkata, India, formerly known as Calcutta, where she had gone for cardiac problems, said local Archbishop Henry D'Souza.

The ritual of Catholic exorcism has its roots in the Bible, in which the New Testament describes that Jesus healed afflicted people by casting out demons. Belief in the devil is one tenet of the church. The religion teaches that Jesus gave his apostles and the church the power to rid people of evil spirits in his name.

There is a minor and major exorcism ritual. A minor one is performed by a priest in preparation for baptism and it asks that God set the person free from original sin.

The major exorcism is performed by the priest chosen by his bishop to be the official exorcist in the diocese or district under the bishop's control.

The priest performing the ritual first determines whether a person fits the criteria for being possessed or -- as determined more commonly -- is instead suffering from physical or psychological problems. The priest will consult with doctors, psychologists and the afflicted person's local priest.

Signs believed to show possession by the ritual's criteria include speaking of unknown languages, unusual strength and aversion to the name of God.

The church prefers the rite of exorcism be performed in the presence of images of the crucified Christ. A small group of faithful may be present with the priest and the person.

The rite begins with the sign of the cross and the sprinkling of water that has been blessed, which recalls the purification of baptism. The priest then reads a litany of the saints and seeks God's mercy.

That may be followed by a recitation of the Psalms, either by the priest or with participation of others. He may also offer a Psalm-like prayer.

The Gospel is then read aloud, the priest lays his hands upon the afflicted person while invoking the Holy Spirit. The Catholic creed is recited, baptismal promises are renewed -- including a denunciation of Satan -- and then the Lord's Prayer is recited.

The priest displays the cross and traces the sign of the cross on his forehead. He then uses an imperative formula that begins with "I order you, Satan ..." and goes on to denounce Satan as "prince of the world" and "enemy of salvation." It ends with "Therefore, go back, Satan."

The rite concludes with a song or chant of thanksgiving, another prayer and a blessing.

Church officials direct that the rite be treated with discretion, never be broadcast and that participants avoid all perception that the ritual has any connection to magic or superstition.

In 1999, the Vatican updated the ritual for the first time since 1614. Changes included urging priests to consult modern medicine whenever possible.

In his memoirs, the former prefect of the papal household, Cardinal Jacques Martin, said Pope John Paul II once performed an exorcism during his papacy .

• The Catholic Encyclopedia
• U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on new rite of exorcism
• The Vatican
• Mother Theresa

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