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Anatomy of an exorcism
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12/28/2006 10:35 PM
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“Hic est dies” – Today is the day, says the exorcist while holding a crucifix.
“No.” growls a hoarse male voice from the throat of a pretty twenty-year-old girl.
“Exi nunc, Zebulon” – Come out now, Zebulon, repeats the priest.
“Why don’t you want to leave?”
“To be a sign.”
“A sign of what?”
“That Satan lives.”
The tension mounts in the darkened chapel. Satan is fighting with God. And I have a front-row seat for this battle for the first time in my life. “This must be the reason why he invited me to witness the exorcism. Satan wants publicity”, I think in the midst of shock. My mind is spinning wildly. We are at the climax of a ritual that until now had not entered into my scheme of thinking. And this is considering that in seminary the priests always managed to pique my childish fear of the Evil One, who is always ready to seize hold of souls. After Second Vatican Council, the teachings about Satan’s existence became a “shameful part of Church doctrine” and, like many other Catholics, I came to discredit it.
The exorcist, Jose Antonio Fortea, pastor of Our Lady of Zulema, is exhausted. And he is only 33 years old. But he has fought Satan for more than an hour, crucifix at the ready. Marta (not her real name), the possessed girl, is as strong as she was at the beginning despite grunting, moaning, twisting and shaking her body like a top. Having unusual strength for a 20 year-old girl, she is slender and has delicate features. It is 12:30 p.m. on an ordinary day and I have witnessed an exorcism for an hour and a half.
Two days before, I received a special call on my mobile phone. It was not special for being from a priest (I receive many), but special for being from a Catholic exorcist (there are two in Spain) and because they keep their distance from journalists. He invites me to witness an exorcism. It stopped me in my tracks. To witness an exorcism by a Vatican-authorized priest is a real treat for a journalist specializing in religion. Despite having more than 20 years’ experience in the profession, I had only managed once to interview Father Gabriel Amorth, the official exorcist of Rome. When I met him, he dedicated a copy of his book with these words: “To José Manuel, with gratitude and with the advice that you should never fear the devil.”
I must confess that it was out of fear that I decided to return Father Fortea’s call and ask him to permit a fellow specialist in religion from the EFE news-service to accompany me. He accepted. Nervously, we went by car to the diocese of Alcalá de Henares on the day of the appointment. It was a sunny and splendid day. We arrived at the parish with great anticipation. It was a matter of being psychologically prepared. On the road, we nervously told jokes. The exorcist had told us to meet him at his parish, which has a modern red brick church situated in a grove of pine trees. The church’s interior was simple and clean. It has a great cross situated in the middle of a high altarpiece. On one side is a holy water font bearing the inscription, “Holy water keeps Satan at bay.”
At 10:30 a.m., the exorcist leaves the church to meet us. He is tall and thin. He wears eyeglasses and has a well-groomed beard. He is an imposing figure. Perhaps it is because of his profession of casting out demons. His pallor and prominent forehead are made all the more prominent by the immaculate black cassock that he wears. He invites us on a walk to give us the background on the case.
“I am not a showman nor do I want publicity. You are here because I need you in order to free the girl. You will have to be very careful. You must not convey any evidence that would tend to identify the girl or her mother. I would prefer that you refrain from naming me, but I accept the sacrifice for the sake of greater credibility. God knows what it will cost me and the problems it will cause. But don’t be frightened. Nothing will happen to you.” He insists on the seriousness of the matter. He points out that in the Old Testament, the word “Satan” appears eighteen times. And in the New Testament, the word “devil” appears thirty-five times and the word “demon” appears twenty-one times. Jesus himself undertook many exorcisms or what the Gospels call “casting out demons.” Father Fortea recalls too that Pope John Paul II has conducted at least three known exorcisms and notes that the belief in the devil is one of the few traits common to practically all religions. “It is an ecumenical issue, par excellence.” He takes the opportunity to give a short overview of various religions, historical periods, and diverse theories. I remain incredulous. I get the feeling that he is trying to convince us by seeking justification in history.
In order to bring him down to earth, we ask him for details of the case. He tells us there is a girl involved who has been possessed by seven demons. He had already expelled six, but the last one is fighting back. “Its name is Zebulon, an almost mute but very intelligent demon.” His name is in the Bible. The chief demon always remains at the end. I have had sixteen sessions and still have not been able to expel him, while normally only two or three sessions are needed.” He does not wish to give any more details about the possessed girl. He will only say that she will be accompanied by her mother, “a true saint”, and that she became possessed at the age of sixteen after a schoolmate had placed a spell on her. “During one of the first sessions, I asked how she had become possessed and I was given a name I did not recognize. Her mother told me that it was a classmate who had invoked Satan to place a death spell on her. And so, she became gravely ill and reached the point of death. Once she got better, odd things began to happen.”
Ever since then, the mother began to detect strange things about her daughter: furniture that moved and objects that broke by themselves and, above all, the girl’s avoidance of all religious objects especially at Sunday Mass. Finally, one night the mother got up when she heard strange noises and, when she opened the door to her daughter’s room, saw her levitating above the bed.
Since she does not want to lose her only child, she seeks help. She speaks with her parish priest, who sends her to two famous psychiatrists. But both of them diagnose the girl as perfectly normal. No scientific explanation could be found for the constant headaches that afflict the girl. It was then that Maria (not her real name), at sixty years of age, seeks an exorcist. She goes to almost every diocese of Spain. Not one bishop wants to hear about the case. She is ready to move with her daughter to Italy to see Father Amorth, when she is told that a Spanish exorcist had just appeared on television concerning of his book about exorcism, entitled Demoniacum.
At that moment, we see a taxi arrive. “It’s them”, says Fr. Fortea. Maria, the mother, is small and frail. She has a look of great pain. “I believe in God and I know that, sooner or later, He will free my daughter from the clutches of Zebulon. I have been on this Calvary for five years. No one in my family knows about it; not even my brothers”, she confesses. Maria is a widow and, every time she goes from her house to an appointment with the exorcist (practically once a week), she has to come up with excuses. “They wouldn’t understand, and I don’t want my daughter to be marked for life.”
The rite of exorcism
At her mother’s side, Marta smiles timidly. She is delicate and has large brown and slightly sad eyes. Her face is marked by a sad adolescence. Her hair is black and swept back into a pony-tail. Her full lips, untouched by makeup, are contracted in apparent pain. She is wearing jeans, a short-sleeved high-necked blue blouse, and a pair of black shoes. She is pretty. Her eyes are attractive but project fear, a great deal of fear, rather than shyness. She seems like a normal girl, who tells us that she is studying mathematics at the university. I think to myself, “She can’t be possessed.”
Beneath the church, Father Fortea opens the chapel where he says daily Mass and then locks it from the inside. The chapel is small and inviting. The exorcist asks for help in bringing a large heavy mattress, covered in green plastic, to the foot of the altar. The window-less rectangular chapel is about twenty-five yards square. At its head is an enormous altar covered by white linen. There are six candles burning before a great cross of the Trinity, which is barely lit by a flickering halogen lamp. Behind it is a painting of a triumphant Christ as well as the tabernacle. To the side, is the Madonna with the Child Jesus in her arms.
Upon entering the chapel, the mother and daughter prepare for the rite of exorcism. Marta puts on a pair of white socks, while her mother places a rosary, a six-inch crucifix, and a picture of Our Lady of Fatima to the side of the mattress. In my mind, I try to record the smallest details. I continue to think that I am on a movie set. Marta lies down face-up on the mattress, gazing at the crucifix. Maria kneels at her side, in a position that she will not leave for the next two-and-a-half hours. Father Frotea prays for a while on his knees, removes his cassock, takes a drink of water, and positions himself at the end of the mattress furthest from the altar.
I feel that the ritual is about to begin and sit expectantly on a pew. The exorcist extends his right hand and places it just over the girl’s face without touching her. Then, he closes his eyes, bows his head and whispers a prayer several times. It is then that the first unsettling shriek breaks the silence of the chapel, penetrating my soul and making my flesh crawl. It is not human. A profound and overwhelming howl comes out of Marta’s throat. But it cannot be her and is not her voice. It is hoarse and masculine. Father Fortea continues to pray while the howling goes on. Little by little the girl’s body begins to tremble violently. She begins moving slowly from side to side at first, and shakes violently thereafter.
“Be gone, Zebulon.”
Confronted by the exorcist’s chanting, the girl constantly twists and turns. Suddenly, her squeals become a loud, furious, and terrifying bellow. The exorcist has just placed the crucifix upon her abdomen while sprinkling the girl with holy water. She kicks with such fury that the crucifix falls off, while her mother picks it up and replaces it again and again. She also brings a rosary to the girl, who furiously casts it away. She seems to be quiet for a moment but then immediately begins to roar. She has not even taken a breath. When the girl hears Father Fortea invoke the name of St. George, she grunts and then turns her eyes up into their sockets, arches her body, and rises completely off the mattress. I can’t believe it.
“Kiss the crucifix”, says the exorcist.
“Jesus is your king.”
“Assee dee dee dee dah.”
“Slave of Satan, you are in darkness.”
“Assee dee dee dee dah.”
“You are doing good work. Because of you, many people will believe in God”.
“In the name of Christ I order you, be gone Zebulon. Eternal damnation awaits. There is no salvation for you.”
While Father Fortea continues to exhort Zebulon, the girl’s hands have been transformed into talons. The exorcist accelerates his prayers and exhortations, “Today is the day. Be gone, Zebulon. Leave this child in the name of God.” The girl shakes uncontrollably. Her screams are frightening. In a hoarse voice, comes the cry “Assassins!” When Father Fortea asks Zebulon why he will not leave her, the demon responds “So that people will believe in Satan.”
Worn out after an hour and a half of combat, the exorcist rises and leaves the chapel. This cannot be fakery or a put-on. It takes guts to do this. It is a good thing that cases of possession are quite rare, says Father Fortea. He has done them for five years and has had only four in Spain. However, while he was studying for his thesis, he attended thirteen others. It is obvious that he has had practice; he commands and insists, and mercilessly tortures the demon in a soft but firm voice. He does it in the name of God and always where it hurts the most. And this is even though he knows what it is like to be assailed by Satan. Once, during an exorcism, the devil made him feel the pain of having a knife thrust into his arm.
Fortea leaves the chapel and my heart begins to pound, wondering what can happen without the exorcist’s tranquil presence. But nothing happens. But then Maria, the mother, takes over the ritual and begins to repeat the same or similar phrases used by the priest. Calmly, but decisively, she seems not to speak to her daughter but to the Evil One who possesses her.
“In the name of Christ, I order you to leave.”
“Open your eyes and look upon the Virgin”, Maria commands while placing a print bearing the image of Our Lady of Fatima within the girl’s sight. The only response is a grunt. She then takes up the crucifix.
“He is your Creator, do you see him?”
“Yes,” says the other-worldly voice amid constant grunts and howls.
“Look at Him, Zebulon, don’t fight it. You know that the day and hour are upon you. Your day and hour have come.”
“Why do you resist?”
“I’m fed up. I have already told you many times.”
“Tell these gentlemen why you won’t leave.”
“I don’t want to.”
“In the name of Christ, say why.”
“So that they will believe in Satan.”
“Come, St. George, come. Come, St. George. Leave her, St. George.”
The possessed girl pauses for a moment, smiles and through her the demon says scornfully, “Leave, St. George.”
Having caught the woman off-guard, the demon would soon afterward catch the priest in a small error. But Maria is not easily vanquished. She is truly a Mater Dolorosa at the foot of her possessed daughter’s cross. Even I am now moved to drop to my knees and tearfully beg God (though I do not dare to intervene more directly), before anything else, to free Marta. My colleague does the same. It had been a long time since I had prayed with such fervor.
The exorcist then returns, bringing a small box filled with consecrated Hosts from the tabernacle, and stands before the girl.
“Look upon the King of Kings,” he says, “Kneel before Him.”
“Disobedient and rebellious servant, kneel”, repeats Fr. Fortea while he holds the consecrated Host.
“Assassin, leave me.”
“St. George, make him kneel.”
At the mention of St. George, the possessed girl sprang to her knees while Fr. Fortea forced her to receive Holy Communion in her mouth. He returned to torturing the demon that inhabited Marta. After giving her Communion, he grasped a Bible and read from Revelation, “…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”, making the demon repeat each word.
“Repeat after me: it would have been better for me to have followed the Light.”
“It would have been better for me to have followed the Light,” repeated the demon while grinding his teeth and dragging out each word.
So it went for a long while. The exorcist seems like a teacher instructing a stubborn child who reluctantly repeats, between grunts and howls, phrases such as “Lord, you are my King. I am your creature. Nothing is beyond your power. You are the Alpha and the Omega.”
“No more. I’m exhausted,” the demon moans.
But Fr. Fortea emboldens his assault, brings up a stool and sits before the girl while holding a crucifix. “Hic est dies,” he repeats. For a moment, I think he is going to do it.
“The longer you take to leave, the more people will believe in God. You are proclaiming God. Come close, sit up and kiss the crucified Christ. Give him a kiss of respect and homage.”
Like a zombie, Marta sits up and draws closer to the cross. Showing the whites of her eyes, she sputters at the mouth but she kisses the cross. Fortea then gently takes her by the arm, gets her up, and makes her walk through the chapel and kiss the tabernacle and image of the Madonna.
“God is here. Repeat seven times: Iesus, lux mundi.” The girl repeats the words, but when she finishes she casts a burning stare at him and says, “Assassin, leave me alone. I can’t take it any more.” But the exorcist goes on.
An hour has now passed. Fortea takes a break. “Your turn,” he says to the mother and leaves the chapel. So Maria inclines herself toward Marta and begins to hector Zebulon.
“You must leave this girl. By the blood of Christ, leave her now. The angels are with her. Three archangels are coming now. The Virgin will crush your head…”
Zebulon continues to groan and writhe but does not seem willing to leave. After a while, Fr. Fortea returns.
“Do you not fear God’s punishment?”
“I know what it is!,” he howls.
Alone with the demoniac
Fr. Fortea glances at the mother, “He won’t go. Let’s leave him for today.” He stands up and leaves. The howling ends abruptly. I see a note of disappointment in Maria’s face. I get the impression that she hoped it would be today. She has been on her knees for almost three hours, but there is no sign of fatigue in face – only defeated expectations. She takes up the crucifix and the print of the Madonna and leaves the chapel. My companion and I are now alone with the demoniac. A few seconds seem like an eternity. We are glued to the bench, hardly breathing. Suddenly, she turns toward us, opens her eyes (only the whites of which we had seen for three hours) and fixes a gaze on us that I will never forget as long as I live. Her eyes are from beyond this world. I have never seen anything like this, ever. In an instant, the gaze is now Marta’s, who smiles at us, calmly gets up, and sits on the pew to remove and carefully fold her socks. I note that she has not broken a sweat, despite three hours of continuous movement. She puts on her earrings and smiles at us again.
“How are you?,” I ask.
“Do you know what has happened?”
“No, I don’t remember.” While she is talking to us, she lovingly kisses the print and the crucifix that she had so recently seemed to despise.
“Does your throat hurt?”
Her voice is as gentle now as when she arrived. No one could say that from that same throat had emerged such howls for three hours.
“Do you know why you are here?”
“Yes, I know. I know that I have…”
She does not finish her sentence. We respect her silence. The five of us leave the chapel and sit down in an adjacent room. Marta is calm. She is again the timid little girl of before. “Every night,” says Maria, “before going to bed, I take the crucifix that never leaves my side, and bless my room, ‘In the name of God, evil spirits leave this room. She always asks me, before going to bed, ‘Mama, have you blessed the room?’” But even so, she is frightened. For example, once her daughter’s hands turned into talons upon touching the cross, and her fingers once became like horns ready to plunge into her eyes. “These are threats that, fortunately, she never carries out.”
Before taking her leave, Marta utters a plea, “The bishops and people should know about this. There should be more exorcists.” Embracing her daughter, they get into Fr. Fortea’s car and depart. Marta turns and looks back at us. Her eyes seem to cry out with the anguish of a slave in shackles. Fr. Fortea promises to call me when the girl is finally freed.
I pray for Marta and her mother. What I witnessed was not fakery.
“He does not talk much, but he is quite intelligent.” This is how Fr. Fortea describes Zebulon, his enemy for more than seven months. In the beginning, Fr. Fortea simply thought that this was the name of the tenth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. Later, after having investigated a little more, he realized that he was dealing with one of the most powerful demons of hell.
He has appeared only three times in history. The first was during the 15th century in Loudon, France. Nearly all of the nuns in a convent there were possessed and tormented ceaselessly by an army of demons. Their chief was Zebulon. The second time was during the 1950s during an exorcism done by Father Candide, the master Italian exorcist who taught Fr. Amorth. He had now reappeared.