Leaving central London on a fast train, within 30 minutes I was at my destination: a town that had seen better days on the fringes of London’s commuter belt. They call such places “post-industrial”; to my eyes this town looked merely depressed. As I walked from the railway station, I wandered past boarded-up shops and along concrete walkways; I saw few smiles on faces. The gathering gloom overhead as the sky turned ever greyer seemed to add to the sense of desolation.
I wondered what the people on the streets as I passed would have thought if they knew that I was on my way to interview an exorcist.
It had been difficult to make contact with the priest in question. I had heard his name in connection with the subject of exorcism; understandably, because of the nature of his work, he was not readily available to speak to a journalist. Finally, though, I spoke to him on the telephone; he does not use email. I was given a time and place to meet. So it was that on a drab Saturday afternoon I found myself walking from the station, and beneath a graffiti-scarred traffic underpass, before emerging at the door of a church.
Father Jeremy Davies has been an exorcist for many decades. At one time he was London’s only exorcist. In 1987, Cardinal Basil Hume, then archbishop of Westminster, asked Father Davies to become the diocesan exorcist. Father Davies accepted, although he admitted that he had only limited knowledge of the work previously. No doubt he was helped in his new vocation by the fact that, in an earlier life, he had been a medical doctor working in remote parts of Africa where he had come across many disturbed patients. As a priest, one of his first positions was at Westminster Cathedral. During that period, Father Davies encountered, he says, “all sorts” of people who came to the cathedral, some of whom were “possessed or troubled.” His work there was an introduction to a world that was to become a central part of his priestly ministry.
Now an octogenarian and still in good health, Father Davies remains alert and focused, with a marked air of peace. His manner puts one at ease straightaway—no doubt the fruit of his experience as both a priest and a doctor. No longer a parish priest, he remains an exorcist for the Westminster diocese, an area that encompasses both central and suburban London north of the river Thames.
Exorcists have been the stuff of media fantasy since the 1970s. The 1973 film The Exorcist was a box-office smash and initiated a cinematic sub-genre devoted to the subject. Needless to say, most of these films have been inaccurate, sensational, and wholly forgettable.
As Father Davies sipped a cup of tea, he looked and sounded neither sensational nor extraordinary. He is a particular type of Englishman, one for whom the word “phlegmatic” seems to have been made. Perhaps it was this quality of imperturbable calm that the late cardinal saw when he appointed Father Davies to undertake the work of exorcist. As we talk further, I’m struck by how matter-of-fact the priest is when discussing a subject that most people would either deny existed or be too terrified to acknowledge.
When I ask Father Davies how he would describe his last 30 years as an exorcist in one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in the world, his reply is, “Intense.” For many of these years he was alone in his ministry. When he started out as an exorcist, the ecclesiastical structures were far from clear. There was an understanding that other priests in the diocese would refer suspected cases of possession, but he says, “It was all a bit haphazard.”
Today there are at least eight priests who are appointed exorcists for the Westminster diocese. Father Davies sees things having improved markedly as a result. Every priest working in a London parish knows whom to contact should he come across someone he suspects of needing the services of the local exorcist.
In addition, one of the more interesting developments of recent years—one in which Father Davies has been instrumental—is the establishment of a network of exorcists known as the International Association of Exorcists. The late Father Gabriele Amorth, Rome’s celebrated exorcist, was a friend of Father Davies and worked with him in founding this association. As a result, conferences open to exorcists are now held to help build a better understanding of the ministry. More particularly, a sense of fellowship has grown up among priests engaged in a work so often misunderstood or simply ignored. In the weeks following our meeting, Father Davies was going to attend just such a conference for British diocesan exorcists. He is heartened that the ministry, which he entered when it was, as he says, at a “low ebb,” is seen now “as being part of the normal life of the Church.”
The matter-of-fact way in which Father Davies discussed the subject of exorcism with me could lull one into forgetting its grave nature. Here before me was a man who casts out demons, who meets people who are under the influence of evil or are oppressed by wicked spirits, possessed by devils even. I asked Father Davies if he had ever felt frightened. He paused to consider the question, before answering, “If God asks us to do a work then he will protect us.”
Father Davies is not, however, naïve about the work in which he is engaged. He notes that some exorcists he has known have come close to “mental breakdown.” The work, he points out, is exacting. The spiritual attacks that all priests encounter are intensified by having to confront evil in an all-too-real battle for a soul. Father Davies sees this all as just another part of his priestly ministry. In fact, one of the more unexpected things he talked of was the pastoral dimension of exorcism. As a consequence, his concern has been less about his own safety and more about the sadness he feels at not being able to free souls from Satanic oppression. In many ways, he says, this is reminiscent of the distress he experienced as a doctor unable to treat a patient.
So does Father Davies see the role of exorcist as a “vocation within a vocation”? He replies that all priests have powers, not least in the Sacrament of Confession, to drive away evil in its many forms. Today, he feels that some of the minor exorcisms should be more widely used. What he is keen to emphasize, however, is that exorcism should be seen as a weapon used against one manifestation, if an extreme one, in the prevailing “war against Christ and His Church,” a war fought both individually and in society as a whole. As Father Davies observes, “All of society is subject to a demonic deception, in so far as it accepts an unbelieving point of view.”
Many of us would not disagree with this view. But Fr. Davies went on to say something more unexpected—that those who seek a self-centered happiness “belong to Satan.” He explained that the traditional threefold temptation of the world, the flesh, and the devil is still relevant today. These elements combine in a spiritual battle for each soul, attempting to draw it away from Christ and, if they are not combated, will ultimately lead the soul to reject God. If the exorcist deals with an extreme example of this in possession, then Christians are obliged to examine their consciences for the first signs of minor, but no less insidious, “turning aways” that later have dire consequences.
Suddenly the conversation had moved me from considering the Hollywood fantasy of heads spinning around and contorted faces to the real evils that lurk in the everyday lives of Christians. Father Davies described how people at certain moments of their lives will weigh a decision about a matter—often, though not exclusively, in the realm of sexual mores—and then make a decision, or accept an argument, that moves them away from Christ. In so doing, they have subtly changed from being a child of God to living a lie. This motion, thankfully, is not irreversible, but he says that many of the people he encounters in this work of deliverance are able to point to that moment when they made such a choice and, thereafter, their lives were changed.
Listening to Father Davies, it is evident that the ministry of exorcist is not some isolated practice reserved for exceptional cases. Instead, it is part of an on-going struggle in which every soul is engaged. For those who have been liberated through exorcism, Father Davies is clear it is just the beginning of a soul’s re-entry into this spiritual combat, in which any future lethargy will continue to be fatal. “What is most important is for each person to fight this fight,” he says. He sees the dislodging of the evil spirit from a soul as only being truly effective if, subsequently, the Holy Spirit is allowed to take hold of that soul. This is not so much the work of a priest ministering from the outside as the daily task of each Christian; not so much a driving out of spirits as establishing the Holy Spirit at the center of each one’s life.
It was time to leave. And as I made to go, Father Davies reiterated the need for each Christian to “wake up” to the reality of evil, especially in its more subtle forms. Prayer, the sacraments, the reading of the Sacred Scriptures, and use of sacramentals were the means to guard against and to drive away the minor diabolic influences that assail us each day.
“With our propensity to sin, we need to be more aware that no one is truly free from demonic influence.”
And with that, I made my way back to the railway station. On the train back to London, I pondered my interview with the exorcist. I had arrived expecting the extraordinary; I had left more conscious that, hidden in the ordinary are serious threats to the life of a soul. But I was also aware that in the ordinary Christian life there are the means, given to us by the Church, to conquer.