Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ is the author of Christ Versus Satan in Our Daily Life (Ignatius 2020).
He presents a real common-sense explanation of how to live our Catholic faith with a balanced approach to synderesis which is doing good and avoiding evil.
I had the chance to sit down and speak with Fr. Spitzer about his work and ministry including a certain well-known case of possession and exorcism.
(My words to him are in bold and to the reader in italics)
When I first took the idea of doing this one of the thoughts that popped into my mind is: I’m not really big into any books on exorcism. I think they focus too much on demonic presence and you lose a sense of God’s grace.
You had this great balance. I think this really is like a step-by-step explanation of salvation. I love how you explain how we are saved, what the power of God is and what the tactics of the devil are.
Oh, thank you very much. Yeah.
You really answered so many questions with what is basically common sense. There’s no mystery here as far as how the devil works. There’s no mystery of the fact that Jesus has saved you and you then explain to us all the details.
That’s exactly the point. God’s power is alive and well. He’s victorious over Satan. The name of Jesus is incredibly powerful but be careful because the devil is a cunning little thing. He can definitely be an accuser and a deceiver and the tempter.
You highlight those tactics; you even touched on the exorcism that the movie was based upon. I always remind people that it started with a Ouija® board.
Yes, it did. The person’s pseudonym was Robbie Mannheim. He had a spiritualist aunt. She taught him how to use the Ouija® board. He was kind of an introverted kid and when she died, he became very lonely and tried then to communicate with her over the Ouija® board. Unfortunately, he didn’t get her, he got this diabolical presence who identified himself as her and so Robbie sort of allowed himself to get imbued with evil, but it all turned out well in the end.
There was quite a remarkable diary from a Jesuit who actually performed the exorcism.
The movie is not an accurate portrayal or is it?
It is about a 70% accurate portrayal. William Peter Blatty, no doubt, had the entire diary. I don’t know how he got it, but he definitely got it.
Do you happen to know if there really was a turning around of the head three hundred and sixty degrees?
No, there was no turning around but there was terrible phenomenon. Poor Robbie had the spelling out of all kinds of terrible words on his stomach, with all kinds of bumps and scratches and things of that nature. That part was absolutely true and it’s described very much in the diary and then, other kinds of objects flying across the room without anybody having thrown them. Desks and chairs moving across the room that was typical of Robbie.
At one point the family went to this Lutheran minister — the Manheim’s were Lutherans — and they sent Robbie to him. The Lutheran Minister said “Look, this is all psychosomatic. I can assure you just give me 24 hours with him and I’ll snap him out of this.”
Of course, when Robbie started levitating and beds moved all over the room in the Lutheran minister’s house, he sort of freaked out. He called the parents back and said “You can take him back, now. Why don’t you go to one of the Catholic priests, they know a lot more about these things.”
So, he literally dumped it back on their lap.
They weren’t Catholics, but they went over and found a Catholic priest who was sort of a new person to exorcisms but also was somewhat newly ordained.
He could see Robbie’s chair just kind of moving around on its own and twirling around. Robbie was speaking perfect Latin and never studied a word of it in his life with a little Aramaic on the side. And so of course at that juncture, he called his bishop.
The bishop gave him permission to do the exorcism.
[Due to a severe injury the priest sustained caused by the demonic force during the exorcism, he had to turn the case over to the Jesuits. They did the rite of exorcism thirty-nine times.]
It finally came to an end with St. Michael actually standing over this boy and ordering the demon literally out of him. And these Jesuits wrote this in the diary with the exact command of Saint Michael and I really do trust those gestures. I don’t think there’s anything exaggerated in the diary. These guys had Ph.D’s in sociology and the sciences. They were not professional exorcists or anything like that. They were basically assigned the task and did it and they were good accurate researchers and University professors. So, I tend to believe the whole thing, as portrayed in the diary.
Father Bishop who actually wrote the diary was a very reliable person and so, you know, I think it was very accurately stated even though it was certainly dramatic and certainly awful.
Each stage you can see the grace taking over because when Robbie was not in a what they call a manifesting state, Robbie basically was taking the sacraments. He converted to Catholicism. He took his profession of faith but that took some time.
You know because obviously there was a lot of resistance to that and, obviously, at the end Robbie basically not only became a Catholic, he made a confession which of course was very, hard to do again. The resistance was there and then ultimately what wound up happening as soon as he took communion during Easter. Thereafter, that’s when the devil actually started to weaken.
The person who’s possessed has to cooperate voluntarily and religiously to get this thing finished off. So that’s what Robbie did and when he finally came out of it there was basically a thunderclap right in the college church University. It was heard by about 30 people in the church all he way across town. Don’t ask me why it happened there, but it was at the exact moment that the devil was released. When Robbie came out of it, he never remembered anything. It’s just like the Exorcist movie where the girl, basically had a premonition something bad happened, but no real memory of anything.
You talk a lot about grace. The more we cooperate with grace, and this doesn’t just go for someone who’s possessed, it goes for all of us, the more we are open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The closer we are to understanding that the Lord is working in our lives. I don’t know if I expressed that correctly, but that seemed to be something that you bring out clearly in the book.
Yes that’s true. It’s certainly the cooperation with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit working in your life. No question about that. Confession is huge. I mean if you really want to honestly keep the evil spirit at bay, definitely confession is the best way to do it.
A person who goes to confession about once a month will find that the grace of that sacrament and the power of Jesus in it is sufficient. I think probably the turning point of Robbie’s exorcism is the confession and then, of course, Holy Communion is another huge turning point. It’s Easter Monday that he’s released, after he’s received the sacraments.
The Rite of Exorcism is not magic. It has to be in combination with a voluntary co-operation of the person.
When we are talking about our relationship with God and even the devil, it’s all about our will.
Its all about our will. I think the whole key point is if we really try to stay in contact with God and just stay in contact with Our Lady stay in contact with the Holy Spirit and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then the devil has very little place to get in.
Obviously, he can still tempt you and will tempt. He can try to deceive you and will deceive you and accuse you. With many of the Saints, he certainly tries to annoy them and tire them and do things like that. I mean certainly, you know, the Curé of Ars and St. Padre Pio even St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with the evil spirit right to the end.
I love how you brought out that since it’s all about freedom of the will, we are free to choose evil because if we can’t choose evil then we can’t choose good. That was fascinating.
Exactly. If the good is not our own, our love is not our own, then basically, God would program good behaviors and loving behaviors into us, but it wouldn’t be of us that that good came from, if we didn’t have the possibility of doing otherwise. Yeah, so it is always comes down to that freedom in God.
Grace is always there to lead us if we want to make the right decision but we still have to make the right decision. That’s correct. That’s exactly right and God awaits our decision.
I keep telling people you have no idea how powerful your freedom is. So powerful. God has made your freedom. God will wait on it. He’s not going to do it for you. He’s going to basically allow you to make the decision then he can sweep in help you or sometimes you get that sense of foreboding and you can just say Lord whatever it is if it’s going to happen here. You know, please help me out here and and keep keep this foreboding, you know, or whatever it is that’s causing this foreboding far far away from me. But it’s your prayer and of course people say:
“If God knows what’s good for you, why doesn’t he just do it before you pray?” Because you’re free. God wants you to ask for the grace; ask for the help. He’s not just going to do it for you.
God wants us to pray and wants us to ask and I think well, this is something that really hits me strongly because Medium is a secular website. There are a lot of Catholics on it and they have different Catholic pages but obviously, since it is a secular website, there are a lot of people who not only are just not Catholic. They don’t like Catholics.
One of the struggles I have is understanding how much they feel because they’re very secular, maybe they’re feeling that the church is always saying ‘You’re bad!’ or however, it comes across. No one in the Church I hear saying: ‘Just pray,’ because that’s the door open regardless to whom you are talking.
Absolutely. I mean prayer is the first entryway for a person to kind of redirect his will toward God at some juncture though. The object of prayer is Lord. ‘I want my will to conform with your will that’s what I want.’ And so the quest has to be out there to know Lord ‘What is your will?’
Of course, getting down on your knees and praying is the beginning but at some point the person has to go to Stage 2: “Lord, I trust you. I want to do your will you know, it’s not just I want to get to heaven I want to do what you want me to do because I know what you want me to do is what I really should want to do because it’s really going to be good for me in the long run. I trust you enough to know that if I get my will alone that will not be good for me. I’d like to follow your will. That’ll be the best thing for me and the people around me because of course if my world is in conformity with yours everybody around me will benefit too. I’ll be your best possible servant.” So that openness to saying: “Okay Lord. What is your will and how can I learn it?” That is the big turning point.
One of the only things I teach as well is the whole thing is Christ is obedient to the Father. Of course, then there is Mary’s obedience and that’s a reversal of Adam and Eve. You bring out that the defining point obviously is the death on the cross.
And you know, it’s kind of interesting because in a way the devil is clueless that he is basically cutting off his nose to spite his face. He’s sitting there tempting Judas going. ‘Oh my gosh. This is going to be great. I can get one of his own disciples to betray him. This guy’s going to be down in despair. This is going to be great. This is going to be for a million years. This betrayal is going to keep on going. Its a kind of checkmate here. Let’s get these priests and agitators fo on. Let’s get them rejecting him. He’s really going to be down and out now.
Jesus in the meantime, of course has planned this all out for the checkmate. ‘I’m going to give my life in complete self-sacrifice as the Son of God in my Divine sonship. I’ll just give it all over in an unconditional act of love.’
Well, of course, that’s the love that will redeem the world and its infinite in its depth which means that it can outshine any evil that any of us can do at any time individually or collectively.
As Jesus is dying on the cross, He’s praying Psalm 22. “My God my God. Why have you forsaken me?” Which of course is not a psalm of abandonment, but the opposite. It’s a psalm of trust which culminates in Jesus saying: ‘Let this death of this innocent victim be for all the people who’ve gone to sheol into the dust, all the people of every future generation all the people that belong to the nation of Israel all the people that belong to the Gentile worlds in the worlds across the sea, see what this death is for everybody. Universally the salvation of all humankind.’
Well the minute, you know, this is being said in Psalm 22, it’s almost as if the devil is going. “Oh, oh, yeah, wait a minute an unaccounted for factor here, you know, I think I just got checkmated, you know, I mean, I mean, it’s more than the trump card. It’s a checkmate.”