Hollywood recurs over and over to Catholic imagery when it attempts to deal with supernatural themes. Movies such as the 'The Exorcist,' "The Exorcism of Emily Rose,' 'Rosemary's Baby', and this year's 'Deliver Us From Evil' and 'Ouija' attempt in varying degrees to suggest the origins of the mystery of evil that still cannot be explained by blinkered scientists.
It has long been said that true stories strain credulity even more than fiction. Tales of real exorcisms emerge in the press, especially when they result in a tragic death as when inexperienced clergy attempt to call out the demons within the possessed. But exorcisms continue to show results when practiced by Catholic and Orthodox clergy who confront real demons and real danger when they attempt to liberate the possessed. One active exorcist, Father Jose Antonio Fortea - a Spanish priest and expert demonologist - has warned against Ouija boards. In a recent interview with the Catholic Register, he expressed particular concern for children and teenagers over interested in demons and spirits. He said that when they become too in Ouija boards and such things, “In that moment, when you call those beings, they may come to you and may be around you.” Nonetheless, he said that becoming possessed is not so easy, and becoming possessed in an instant is very rare. However, some years ago he continued to try to exorcise a demon from a young woman in his native Spain who had become possessed after having played with a Ouija board while at a sleepover at a friend's house. See 'Marta: the Possessed.' In a reponse emailed to Spero News, Fr Fortea said that the young woman remains possessed.
Ouija boards continue to fascinate, and they continue to be sold openly in stores that are selling them out since the release of the 'Ouija' movie. But it is nothing to take lightly. Take the case of a young priest in Colombia, for instance.
When he was a boy, Carlos Arturo Ríos was accustomed to awakening at 2 o’clock in the pre-dawn hours to milk the cows of his neighbors in the little Colombian town known as Salento. The locale is known for its unspoiled colonial architecture, lying in the midst of the coffee-growing region in the central western part of the country. Ríos diligently milked between seventy to eighty cows on the farms of the area every day. By dawn he could eat a quick breakfast, which might consist of corncakes known as arepas and a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar. Once he had eaten, his work day was not yet finished since he would then go on to tend to the glistening coffee trees or harvest their red berries. He might have become a migrant worker, handyman, or finquero: an owner of a small plantation, like so many of his countrymen in the area. But it was not to be so.
It was on a day like any other that Ríos felt a calling, but rather than heading for a seminary he instead decided to study philosophy. He became a teacher, and worked as an educator for ten years. But the call he had felt many years before returned, over and over, and he finally could not resist. Following the siren’s song, he entered a seminary and studied theology and became a Catholic priest. Father Ríos was sent by his bishop to serve as a vicar at a place called La Tebaida, and named to a pastorate at La Virginia, a village in the municipality known as Calarcá, not far from the provincial capital, Armenia.
And it was on October 4, 2012, after having spent six years in the little village ensconced in the midst of Colombia’s coffee-growing region, that the young priest’s life would change – forever.
When Father Ríos began his ministry at Calarcá, only four people regularly attended Mass. Just days before, his predecessor – Fr Mauricio Arias, who had founded the parish – had not bothered to open the doors of the church because of the lack of a congregation. Perhaps the people of Calarcá, who scratched a living by growing coffee, plantains, maize and beans, and cassava, had come to their own arrangements with the Deity and saw no need for a Christian ministry. Or perhaps they were just indifferent to the entreaties and encomiums of a young and inexperienced priest who preached with frankness and religious fervor.
Father Ríos preaches today, as he did then, that God must be taken seriously or rejected completely. “I should not use him only for my whims. The religious life must be lived radically. I don’t disguise things: I call things for what they are,” he says. To the four regular members of his tiny congregation, Ríos gave relentless warnings. The world, he said, was on the edge of a precipice because humanity appears unwilling to commit to anything or anybody. “The world sells us the idea that we merely enjoy ourselves, and that we are going to die and it doesn’t matter how we enjoy life nor who we cause suffering. This new society that is coming about, children and young people, is being raised with the idea that life ends at the grave. And if that is true, what about the word of God? We have erased from our minds the concept of eternal life.”
And then something would happen that would make the people in Calarcá take another look at their nagging priest.
One day, Bishop Fabio Duque Jaramillo, who presided over the diocese of Armenia, assigned Father Ríos to another town. Once he was settled in Quebrada Negra, Rios was approached by the parents of two girls. Their daughters, aged 14 and 16, were acting strange.
When Ríos went to visit the family at their home, he found the two girls bestially scratching the floor of their hut and scraping their faces with their fingernails. The priest told their parents to call an ambulance and have them taken to the psych ward at a local hospital. “They’re nuts,” he said.
He thought that he was done with it.
But as he recounted the sordid events, his terror returned. “One of the girls carried a metal desk big enough two people and tried to throw it at me. That’s when I felt my legs tremble because that force did not come from her.” When he called his bishop about it, he was told to do a follow-up. So he did.
Bishop Duque Jaramillo told him, “I haven’t been able to find an exorcist. So, it’s on you, father, from now on.” In response, Ríos told him, “But it’s been only a year since I was ordained! How can you put me in the middle of this?”
“No, it’s up to you,” affirmed the bishop. “You have the gift, and I need your help since lots of people have died for the lack of a doctor; but this is not a disease. So I’m giving you a commission: you won’t charge a cent.”
That was just the beginning, and Father Ríos’ renown as an exorcist began to circulate through the countryside. One story held that at La Virginia there was a priest who could call out spirits, that he placew his hands on the chest of the possessed and prays in Latin, that he’s young and doesn’t look like he can fight with demons, but people come from all over Colombia to see how fearless he is and how much he sweats during the fights with the demons and calls on them with wrath.
So it was the Carlos Arturo Ríos: former ranch hand, farmer, and teacher, became a tamer of spirits.
It was not long before the congregation of just four stalwart Christians grew to more than 150 who come to assist Mass every day at Divine Child parish in La Virginia. Every Saturday at vespers, Father Ríos offers a Mass of healing for the sick of body and sick of soul. At the age of 45, he calls out spirits every week or even daily. He has become a celebrity, hounded by journalists.
But made him a celebrity occurred on August 28, 2012. At 8:30 in the evening, Father Ríos began the exorcism of Juan Diego – a 24-year old student of nursing from the city of Armenia who has within him the spirit of a suicide. The young man came alone, since his family is not Catholic. The priest’s helpers have tied down Juan Diego’s wrists and ankles. He appears calm, but won’t be for much longer. He is surrounded by eight strong men, trained by the priest.
The mountains of Quindío grow chilly at night when the wind buffets the corrugated metal roofs of the little houses in the village, threatening to carry them off. The temperature drops from the 90s to the mid-60s, and the people of the village have dressed themselves in wool ponchos and jackets. Down in the valley, they can see the twinkling lights of Calarcá and Armenia. There, at the parish house – the only place where there is still light – twenty-eight people have gathered expecting a miracle.
The priest is not impressive by appearance. He is about 5 and a half feet tall and pale. A few gray hairs on his head signal that he is no longer young. Father Ríos walks quickly and projects an air of someone who is on another plane, raised up with reflection and prayer that makes them seem to levitate.
Once he entered the room, his actions wee decisive and vigorous. He gave orders to his assistants. There was no time to lose. His eyes were wide open and showed both self-control and worry as though he were expecting bad news. The priest looked all around to be assured that everything is under control and then begins to pray, calling upon all the saints he can think of. Juan Diego then collapsed as if transfixed but the eight assistants don’t let him fall. They carried him to the altar of the church down the center aisle. Some of the men began to pray silently while holding crucifixes or bibles, while others pray out loud with fervor with lips moving as rapidly, as Juan Diego writhed and bellowed on the floor. The young man shuddered as his body buckled at otherworldly angles as he hissed, scratching the floor and grasping at the men with claw-like fingers. All the while, the voice of Father Ríos droned on and on, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Angelic Salutation.
The orbits of Juan Diego’s eyes turn back and forth wildly as if they would fly from their sockets. Getting to his feet, Juan Diego attacks the priest but is held back by the guardians of the spirit tamer. They bring him to the ground where the possessed bucks and jumps as though he will fly into the air. Everyone in the church prays out loud while Juan Diego’s eyes cast villainous darts at the priest. The possessed then laughs hoarsely, spitting out with contempt, “What are you here for? Just try and cross me! Get your paws off me, bitch. Don’t touch me, damn you!” The priest said later that the possessed Juan Diego was referring to the Virgin Mary.
Outside, the dogs of parish barked and howled relentlessly. The electricity had not returned and at 9 o’clock at night the darkness was all-encompassing. Father Ríos was sweating bullets when the possessed Juan Diego calls out in his demonic voice. “Shut up, all of you! Why are you singing? You’re singing to a God who has forgotten you! I am the spirit created at the beginning and will be until the end!”
In the face of the evil assault, Father Ríos placed a wooden crucifix on the throat of the victim who roared like a beast while writing and shaking back and forth as if someone or something was trying to explode out of his chest and take flight. His body was being broken in two and stretched beyond human limits. At last, the possessed man falls to the cement floor on his knees while drool fell from his open mouth.
The priest applied holy salt on Juan Diego’s head while praying even more intensely. The spirit inhabiting Juan Diego does not obey when the Father Ríos demands, “What is your name? What is your name?” Instead, demon answers “Take me out, bitch! This body is mine and it belongs to me, a slave forever.”
Suddenly, quiet reigns over the little church and village as the sounds of the night become audible again. The dogs cease to bark. Someone nearby is playing a plaintive tune on a flute. After a pause, Padre Ríos recites the Prologue of Saint John and the prayer of exorcism in Latin “to bind the spirit that is within.” He orders, “You will leave this boy in peace,” while pouring holy water on Juan Diego’s febrile head.
Juan Diego’s hands are balled into fists. A physician, a woman who has been present for the exorcism to assist the priest, opened the boy’s fingers and takes his pulse.
“I order you, in the name of Christ, go to sleep! Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” cries the priest. Juan Diego, or the spirit inhabiting him, falls asleep in a pool of sweat.
Awakened, Juan Diego looks embarrassed at the people around him. They unwind the sheets in which they had wrapped him. He will need to undergo the ordeal again.
“I don’t remember anything,” says Juan Diego. “The padre was exorcising me. That’s all I know.” Father Ríos, who has removed his cassock and stole, orders Juan Diego, “Remember that you have been liberated from that spirit. If you get drunk again, even after this, the spirit will return. So, be smart. I’ll be watching.”
Juan Diego go up and walked from the church.
Father Ríos said, “The Ritual of Exorcism says that any person, after the last exorcism, remains vulnerable for seven to nine years. During that time, an exorcized person must go to Confession frequently.” He breathes deeply and gives every sign of mental and physical exhaustion. Defeated, he knows that he was only able to put the demon to sleep, rather than casting it out. “A human being, in order to keep away a spirit, need not be a goody-two-shoes. No, because goody-two-shoes are not saved…not everything is a sin nor is everything permitted,” he says. “Even so, Saint Paul says ‘All things are lawful to me: but all things are not expedient.”
How does a spirit enter a human being? Father Ríos explains “To begin with, I would have to say that I have not possessions by the Devil; and the day that I do I will take off running. I have had cases of possessions by spirits of people who have committed suicide or have died tragically. These spirits usually take over a body, seeking out people who are far from God, who haven’t had the sacraments or use Ouija boards, who don’t go to Mass, or are uncontrollable sexually.”
“These people are weak and allow these spirits, which I call beasts, to enter them. A doctor would never recognize this; normally, doctors don’t believe in this. Some of them, when they come across such a case, call it neurosis while others say that it is impossible that by placing my hands on someone will cause their pupils to dilate. They tell me, ‘What you are doing is totally contrary to what we learn in medical school.”
There are at least thirty-four cases like Juan Diego. Of these, five of the possessed live in the priest’s rectory. They are indigent and have come from other parts of the country. The priest accepts offerings for the care and feeding of his wards, while the local people bring them clothing. They have lived there for five months and have still not been liberated from the dominion of evil spirits.
“At first, I was frightened,” avers Father Ríos. “Now I’m not even though some of these cases of possession make the hair of your neck stand up. It’s hard. I’ve been beaten, and other things. I’ve done exorcisms like the one in the movie ‘Emily Rose’, but there are two things I have not seen yet: I’ve never seen anyone turn his head 360 degrees, or die.”
Exorcisms can be performed only by those priests given faculties by a bishop. Anyone who attempts an exorcism and causes the death of someone would be sanctioned by the Church, and go to jail. Father Ríos has been delegated by his bishop to perform exorcisms. But before undertaking the ritual, he requires that anyone requesting one must be examined first by a psychiatrist. “If the doctor finds an illness, then he should give treatment. I don’t get in the way unless I become convinced that the person is possessed. They have to be certified by a doctor. Possessed people can’t stand me. They won’t talk to me, and then they attack or run away. I hold them down with the power of God, even though sometimes they hit me.”
Father Ríos is aware that his church often fills with the curious and thrillseekers. “I tell them, ‘If you’ve come here for the priest, you’re mistaken. I go to the bathroom a lot, which makes me a human being and a sinner. But if you come here for Jesus Christ, it is worth the trouble.”
La Virginia is no longer the same. Since Father Ríos is the only exorcist in the coffee-growing Eje Cafetero region and probably the whole country, plenty of people come to the town seeking help and liberation. There are plenty of evil spirits and beckoning bodies in the parish. At night can be heard the howls of the possessed. Once in a while, one of the possessed escapes from the church during the ritual runs through the streets growling like a beast. They are brought back by strong believers and subjected again to the prayers and rituals of exorcist.
Not everyone is able to live on such a battlefield where good and evil fight to the death. One woman, Luz Marina Londoño, has stopped attending Mass because seeing so many people possessed by spirits terrifies her. Referring to her mother, Sanda Milena Piedrahita, says “She will only go to funeral Masses: the ones that possessed don’t attend. It’s because she is frightened, since any time she goes to a normal Mass someone falls down next to her. That’s why she won’t go back.”
No one can live so close to possessions and not be affected. Sandra says that her view about spirits is changing. “I talk a lot with Leonardo. He’s from Belalcázar in Risalda. He has a spirit. Sometimes he comes here in the afternoon and I ask him things and we laugh together. Then he goes away and when he returns , when I remind him of something we had talked about, he says that he doesn’t remember anything and that I was probably talking to the spirit of the old man who is inside him. The truth is that that old man speaks normally, just like Leonardo.”
Sandra admits that the presence of the priest has brought not only divine gifts, but worldly things as well. She relates that when the priest celebrates a Mass of healing, crowds come from all over Colombia. The locals make money renting rooms or selling food and trinkets. When Bishop Duque Jaramillo announced that he planned to re-assign Father Ríos, the members of the congregation took up a petition demanding that their beloved priest should remain. Even the supernatural has its terrestrial uses, just as the divine is transmitted through people and material things, such as water, salt, bread and wine.