London exorcist: “All of society is subject to a demonic deception”
Combating the devil isn’t a practice reserved for exceptional cases, says exorcist Father Jeremy Davies. It’s an on-going struggle in which every soul is engaged.
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.
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.
“With our propensity to sin, we need to be more aware that no one is truly free from demonic influence.”
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.”
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.”
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.