Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Can saints be possessed?

This week I've been reading An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. It's a pretty neat book, a good introduction to the theology and praxis behind exorcisms that lacks the hyper-sensationalized accounts one finds in Malachi Martin's Hostage to the Devil. Also interesting from a Traditionalist point of view is Fr. Amorth's statements that exorcism prayers said in Latin are always more effective (p. 77), that the removal of the exorcism prayers from the new baptismal rite was a "grave mistake" (p. 54) and that "allowing the ministry of exorcism to die is an unforgivable deficiency" on the part of diocesan bishops; for all these things he says that the hierarchy must say a "forceful mea culpa" (p. 55). When ancient rites are modified and divested of some time-tested prayers and rituals, their spiritual efficacy can be weakened dramatically. 

Yet there are also some things in his book that are a bit difficult to get a grasp on. My biggest sticking point is his assertion that absolutely anyone is open to satanic possession, not excluding saints living lives of unitive contemplation with God. On page 57 of his book, Fr. Amorth makes this stunning statement to the effect that  saints are not exempt from full-blown diabolical possession:

"The lives of many saints include examples of this affliction. Among modern saints, I can cite two who have been beatified by Pope John Paul II: Father Giovanni Calabria and Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified (who was the first Arab to be beatified). In both cases, and without any human fault, they were subjected to periods of true satanic possession. During those periods, the two saints did and said things totally incompatible with their holiness without the least fault, because it was the devil who acted through their bodies" (p. 57).

Fr. Amorth is an experienced exorcist, and when he uses the phrase "true satanic possession" I am assuming he is being precise with his words and does not mean either diabolical oppression or obsession (many saints, like St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio and St. John Bosco, were oppressed by the actions of the evil one). But true satanic possession of saints? I have never heard of this - I do not deny it's possibility outright, so maybe some of you can enlighten me if there is something I am missing. But my sensus fidelium reacts against the idea at the outset for the following reasons:

If a person is described as a saint while still on the earth, this means they are living a life of eminent sanctity - meaning a detachment from all mortal sin and most voluntary venial sin and the heroic practice of the virtues, inspired by an abundance of sanctifying and actual grace conferred by the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost dwells in this person in an abundant way, directing all of their natural faculties and works towards supernatural ends: the love of God. In the saint, the Scripture is most perfectly fulfilled which says, "I will dwell in them and with them" (2 Corinthians 16).

Yet, if this is undeniably the case with saints, how can a demon also dwell within their body? As St. Paul asks rhetorically, "What fellowship hath light with darkness? What concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor. 6:14-15). It seems to me that, based on the presence of such an eminent degree of grace and holiness in the soul of the saint (through the Spirit), that this state is incompatible with true demonic possession.

It may be argued that in demonic possession, the demon takes hold only of the person's body but not of the soul, and it is the soul that is sanctified by the presence of grace. Thus, a demon could theoretically take full and complete possession of a body, leaving the Spirit-filled and sanctified soul completely unhindered. In my unlearned opinion, this seems to posit too much of a radical distinction between the soul and body, for two reasons:

1) The saint is one who, by virtue of the excellent state of their soul, is able to bring their body into perfect subjection to the soul through prayer and mortification. The fact that the soul is eminently sanctified does not mean the body is cut loose - rather it means that the soul has a more perfect degree of control over the body and its passions. Since the body is subject to the holy soul, it seems unlikely that such a soul would succumb to the entrance of a demon into the body.

2) When a person is sanctified, their whole being is sanctified, body and soul - this is why the relics of the saints have efficacy, because their bodies, in a mystical way, anticipate the general Resurrection and already possess a degree of that glorification that will come at the end of time with the ultimate vindication of the just. If, therefore, a saint's body already possesses on this earth a foretaste of that glorious exaltation, how can this same flesh be overcome and possessed by a demon?

One other argument to take into account:  True demonic possession is rare, but mortal sin is common.Yet, in the case of mortal sin, we know that grace is lost if a mortal sin is committed; or to put it another way, deadly sin and grace cannot co-exist in the same soul at the same time - they are contradictions, akin to the distinction between life and death. But one can commit a mortal sin without the presence of an actual devil in the body. But if grace and mortal sin cannot coexist in the same person, why should a demon be able to coexist with grace?

It could be objected, I suppose, that committing a mortal sin destroys the soul, while a demon only possesses the body. But I think this brings us back to the point I raised above about the manner in which sanctity effects even the bodies of the saints.

Thus, it seems to me that we should not be seeing cases of true, full-blown satanic possession in the lives of the saints, especially since (as Fr. Amorth points out) demons tend to enter people through the senses (p. 78), especially through the eyes. Since saints exhibit an extraordinary control over their bodies and passions, especially in custody of the eyes, it seems extremely unlikely that a demon would find occasion to enter the saint - furthermore, because of the saints' radical commitment to the interior life, we might ask how a demon could force entry into a saint and the saint not "notice" what was happening to them, especially since saints are so adept and detecting the presence of the evil one?

The only recourse we really have left is to suggest that perhaps God allows Satan this access for the purpose of trying His saints. Yet, if so, why is this not mentioned by spiritual writers like St. John of the Cross? We know of the dark night of the senses (or the passive purgation of the senses) and the spirit, but we hear of no "Dark Night of Demonic Possession." We could also note than even in extreme cases of demonic oppression, like that experienced by St. Anthony in the desert, we do not hear of Satan actually entering the saint and possessing them.

So, while I admit a lack of theological training on this point, I have grave reservations about Fr. Amorth's statements here. I admit that I do not know much about Father Giovanni Calabria and Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified; perhaps the possessions occurred at some point in their lives before they entered into a state of sanctity? I could be wrong on all this and would be grateful for any insight any of you could offer. In the meantime I'm going to have to answer this query in the negative.


Boniface said...

It seems to me, also, that true demonic possession can never be the will of God, since Christ's whole mission was to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). How could God positively will something that Christ came to destroy? I know this is very broad...sometimes God allows things that we perceive as evil but are hidden goods...but is there any way that demonic possession can be a hidden good?

Like I said, the jury is out for me on this one. Does anyone know if Aquinas dealt with this at all?

bgeorge77 said...

"but is there any way that demonic possession can be a hidden good?"

Maybe: I suppose if an agnostic saw someone possessed (in a really terrifying way) become healed by exorcism, then that might really be convincing.

bgeorge77 said...

"but is there any way that demonic possession can be a hidden good?"

Maybe: I suppose if an agnostic saw someone possessed (in a really terrifying way) become healed by exorcism, then that might really be convincing.

Seán said...

It brings to mind the classic phrase, "The devil made me do it." Father doesn't say necessarily that they committed sins, but only that they "did and said things totally incompatible with their holiness". I can't answer what those things are, but maybe they were more tests for the bystanders rather than the saints.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "As we gather from the Fathers and the theologians, the soul itself can never be 'possessed' nor deprived of liberty, though its ordinary control over the members of the body may be hindered by the obsessing spirit."

"And though this possession might be associated with sin, this was not necessarily the case; for sometimes this affliction might befall an innocent person, as in the case of the boy who had been possessed from his infancy (Mark 9:20)."

And St Thomas says:

"But the ordering of the assault is from God, who knows how to make orderly use of evil by ordering it to good."

Boniface said...

Nobody is suggesting that the saints committed sins, as is the case with the possessed boy from the Gospel of Mark...but I do think that sanctity of life is a good prevention against being possessed. If someone maintains that sanctity of life is no protection against demonic possession, then, theoretically, wouldn't they need to admit at least the theoretical possibility that the Blessed Virgin Mary could have been subject to demonic possession? This is not the case, of course, but if holiness is no real prevention, then we have to admit a theoretical possibility.

Perfectior said...

From what I have read, I know Saints can be really possessed.

Examples: The Blessed Sister Mary of JESUS Crucified (in French, Bienheureuse Marie de JÉSUS Crucifié) suffered a real trial of possession, being already favoured of many extraordinary graces (Apparitions, levitation,...).

In the 16th century, in Coutances (France), Marie des Vallées, a pious lay woman, suffered also from possession; she accepted it at Our Lord's request to suffer for the conversion of sinners; her case was examined and recognised as coming from a heavenly conduct by three bishops of Coutances and by an archbishop of Rouen; Saint John Eudes was her confessor, considered her as a Saint, and wrote several pamphlets and works to defend her holiness. From her, we have testimonies about her innerly prayers when the devil used her body for blasphemy and other movements (the devil did not occupy the most noble part of the soul, the part wherewith we consent or not to sin or to grace), about the heroism of her resistance to temptations during such assaults, about the impossibility in which she lived during some years without confession (the devil closed her lips), communion (either sacramental or even spiritual), and about the inefficiency of the exorcisms of the Church. She was saved from all possessions by an Apparition of the Holy Virgin; but afterwards accepted other trials for the conversion of sinners: for example, she lived several years with her soul suffering what the damned suffer in hell. A very complete book about her (in French) is at the following address:

In both cases, the possession was not caused by a fault of the person, the possession was a heroic occasion of merits and of purity of soul, even with less sins than otherwise.

Ben G said...


I was reading the Revelations of St. Bridget and I came across this statement that is apropos here:

"Therefore, those who accuse me do so falsely when they say that those
who serve me with great and godly devotion are insane and possessed by the devil. They consider me to be like a man who gives his chaste and trusting wife over to adultery. Such a one should I be, if I allowed a righteous and God loving man to be handed over to the devil! But because I am faithful, the devil will never rule over the soul of any man who devoutly serves me. Although my
friends sometimes seem to be insane or senseless, it is not because the devil is tormenting them, or because they serve me with fervent and godly devotion. It
is rather because of some defect or weakness in the brain, or some other hidden reason, which serves to humble them. It may also happen, sometimes, that the devil receives power from me over the bodies of good men for the sake of their future reward, or that he darkens their consciences. But he can never rule the souls of those who have faith in me and who love me."

Christ himself says that he can give devils power of the bodies of his servants but not their souls (and possession itself is the possession of the devil over the body, not over the higher functions of the soul), but he says they can't rule over his servants. This would seem to rule out possession, but allow the saints to be spiritually attacked externally in body (like St. Pio).

Anonymous said...

Great bolg! congratulations on your wise vision filled with serenety. We cannot become more affraid of the devil and worried about it that we are touched by God's love!

Perfectior said...

Ben G,

Thank you for your comment; I think, however, that the words of Our Lord to Saint Bridget do not apply to the real possession as I explained in my former comment (the noblest part of the soul remaining free), but to the opinion of non very pious men who see in every heroic virtue or mortification a sign of diabolic possession (like some jews said about S. John Baptist). Moreover, Our Lord does not say he cannot let the devil rule the body of the Saints.

These case of possessions are so rare however, and the Providence would not allow them, except in very well prepared Saints. For example, in the possession of Sister Mary Baouardy (beatified by John-Paul II), which lasted 40 days, the Carmelite nun resisted to the (40-day) temptation to say a murmur against Our Lord.

Anonymous said...

I think we need to look at this topic more objectively. Look at Emily Rose, who was possessed. She lived in our own time. During her exorcism, at one point she was asked by the Blessed Mother if she would continue to be possessed as a form of suffering and she said yes. Read her story. She died as a result of the demons activity in her. She is a modern day saint, although not yet canonized by the Church. But I believe she will be some day. Look at our world today. Isn't is possible that possession could be a form of suffering for mankind? I think Fr. Amorth, who is an expert in his field, is correct that saints can be possessed and we should acquiese to his expert opinion. There is also the possibility that repented sinners who are possessed already and have a conversion could become saints. A saint, after all, is someone who goes to Heaven. Aren't we all saints in progress?

Spirit Matters said...

In the case of Bl. Mary of Jesus Crucified, as far as I know she was never into mortal sin & her possession took place in the midst of her sanctity. Blessed Eustochium of Padua, beatified by Clement XIII, on March 22, 1760 is another case of a saint possessed.

Boniface said...

I did not say that they have to be in mortal sin, only that there usually has to be an 'opening.'

Anonymous said...

not as good as you guys here, but I have read, that sometimes God allows the demon entry even in a most holy soul, and then holds it there. making it bear witness to the glory of God , the holiness of the saint, and the good works God will do through that soul,if it could flee it would, but God holds it trainee saints can correct me.If God wills it,then it is done.

Anonymous said...

It is true that God allows the demon to test us to both try our sanctity and to show us the limits of our abjectness. These tests come through temptations and the actions of our fellow man. We also know that many saints were oppressed by the demon.

Additionally, we know that many saints have been taken to hell by the devil, as opposed to a guided tour by an angel.

We further know that a good confession, reception of Holy Communion, and devout cooperation with exorcisms very often do nothing to end possessions that are already in occurrence.

And, we know that Satan can't do squat without the permission of God.

So, we must deduce that in some mysterious way, for the benefit of their souls or as an example and inspiration for others, people of heroic sanctity can be possessed, if it be God's will.

I won't argue with Fr. Amorth.


Anonymous said...

As to your post:

1. First diabolic possession in the lives of the saints in extremely rare, the two saints mentioned by Father Amorth are the only two that I am aware of that suffered this. Much more common is diabolic infestation, oppression and obsession in the lives of the saints.

2. All diabolic activity is regulated by God, the devil can not do anything without his permission, so if these two saints were in fact possessed it was by the pure will of God and not through any fault of their own. It is true this is the most rare cause of possession. Why God would permit this, we of course do not know, for his ways are mysterious and higher than our ways. We could easily speculate that it had something to do with their purification and the graces that can be gained from suffering. Think of it in the same way as any other multitude of things the saints suffer for their purification and holiness and for the conversion of sinners.

3. Theologically it is definitely possible for a soul that has sanctifying grace to be possessed (which is what a saint is), this the vast majority of exorcists are in agreement. It is because the spirit of God substantially unites with the soul, whereas the spirit of a demon in no way can do so. The possession of a body by a diabolical spirit is a rather material and partial way to possess, whereas Gods spirit possesses us in a much more substantial and deep way, penetrating to the very depths of our soul. Possession of the soul by a devil is possible but only in the case of a person who intentionally gives their soul to said devil, this is called Perfect Possession and is a discussion for another time.

Perpetua said...

No. These people are being deceived into allowing themselves to be possessed. They have false humility and are tempted into allowing themselves to be possessed as thought it will bring some independent virtue. All virtues come from God, not the devil. Emily Rose and these other supposed mystics are not having true visions of our Lady or of Christ. These are false. It never suggests in the scripture that Holy people are susceptible to possession. This wickedness is indicative of other evils and false humilities running amock in the church.

Boniface said...

Emily Rose? We're here talking about saints and the only thing you can reference is that crummy movie?