For most, costumes of demons and devils disappeared with the end of Halloween. Last week, members of the VCU Catholic Campus Ministry reminded members of the community that these beings could be more than just costumes.
Deacon Dominic Cerrato gave his lecture, “Demons, Exorcisms and the Church,” in the Student Commons on Nov. 14 from 7 to 9 p.m.
“(Cerrato) was talking about the fall of the angels, Satan and what he is, why God lets him around the world and the final part of his talk was on different kinds of demonic activities,” said Adam Stynchula, a cinema and religious studies major and president of Catholic Campus Ministry.
Stynchula said the people present at the lecture included those who practice Catholicism and those who don’t. He said initially the organization wanted to host the lecture closer to Halloween, but decided to hold a haunted house instead.
“It was a topic that I thought could bring in all people of all kinds, something that interests people,” Stynchula said.
He said he thought the lecture might interest religious studies, sociology and psychology majors.
“We want people to realize that CCM is an open organization. You don’t have to be Catholic to join,” Stynchula said.
Stynchula said that while the topic is dark and sometimes hard to talk about, the lecture was not intended to intimidate anyone.
“The main thing (Cerrato) emphasized is we shouldn’t be scared about this, there’s nothing to be scared about because, he was really going with a Catholic lens on this, Christ has already won the battle,” Stynchula said.
Cerrato, the deacon who delivered the lecture, received a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and a Master of Arts in theology from Duquesne University of the Holy Ghost.
Cerrato was also ordained as the first permanent deacon in the Diocese of Steubenville in 1995; he currently serves on the Diocese of Richmond as the full-time Director of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bede Catholic Church.
Stynchula said Cerrato first became interested in the topic of demons after a firsthand experience.
During his lecture, Cerrato spoke of his encounter with a boy who was possessed by a demon after being involved with a cult. The boy told Cerrato he needed to go to the Catholic Church because he was having bad thoughts such as killing his mother and was hearing voices.
Cerrato said when he and a Nigerian priest began praying over the boy he began contorting, making noises and behaving oddly in other manners.
“There are dark forces at work, people cooperating with the work of the devil and you see it many different places and it’s desensitizing us,” Cerrato said.
He said approximately 60 percent of people in Western Europe have had some contact with cults.
Stynchula said Cerrato also named the signs associated with demons including temptation, infestation, obsession, oppression and possession during his lecture.
The chair of Catholic Studies at VCU, Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., said exorcism scenes in movies and entertainment are generally sensationalistic depictions of people levitating and their heads spinning around. While he said these are overly dramatized, he has seen supposedly possessed people who scream and sometimes foam at the mouth.
“The basic belief is that people can be possessed by evil spirits and that the trained exorcist can expel the demon or demons in the name of Jesus Christ,” Chesnut said.
During an exorcism, Chesnut said a passage of the Bible may be read and the exorcist may speak directly to the demon and try to see which demon is possessing the person.
“There’s been an explosion of exorcisms, more and more exorcisms are taking place throughout the world,” Chesnut said. “The last 10 or 15 years we had an increasing number of Catholic priests who are becoming trained to become exorcists because there’s been a shortage of priests.”
Chesnut said in areas such as Latin America and Africa there are a fair amount of exorcisms done without the required permission of a Bishop.
He said protestants, particularly Pentecostal protestants, also practice exorcisms, although they are less ritualistic than Catholic practices. He said the majority of the exorcisms that take place in the world are not Catholic but Pentecostal.
“Sometimes, particularly with Pentecostals, when you have more informal exorcisms and preachers who really don’t have that much training, things can get out of hand,” Chesnut said. “There’s been cases when people have died. They’ve been strangled accidentally during an exorcism and such, and so not done properly it actually can result in harm.”
He said he thinks the increase in exorcisms may come from the growing practice of Pentecostalism and Charismatic Catholicism, which puts an emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and demonic spirits. He also referred to a Huffington Post article that stated even Pope Francis had exorcised someone at the Vatican last year.
Chesnut said exorcisms are not only practiced by Catholics and Pentecostals, but also in Islam where there is also belief in demonic possession and exorcism rituals. He said these are not as frequent as with Catholics and Pentecostals.
“This is kind of a global phenomenon, it’s not just the Catholic church and the U.S. It’s throughout the world,” Chesnut said.