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GREENWOOD—Like many priests today, Father Vincent Lampert has his hands full with his parish duties.
As the pastor of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood, he looks to the many pastoral needs of his parishioners, who have more than doubled since his arrival there in 2003.
His days and nights are often filled with celebrating Mass, working with the staff of his parish’s school, attending meetings, giving presentations at Bible studies, and visiting sick parishioners at hospitals and nursing homes.
For the last six years, Father Lampert has also ministered to people who believe they are being tormented in some way by the devil or other evil spirits.
Father Lampert is the exorcist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, an office to which he was appointed by Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein.
Yet, he says, this relatively unusual ministry ultimately has the same goal as much of what he does in his parish from day to day.
“[Exorcism] is one of the liturgical rites of the Church,” Father Lampert said. “The Church is in the business of helping people to be in a right relationship [with God]. Sometimes we can’t do that on our own. We need assistance. And that’s where the Church will step in and help provide that.” (Related: Catechism Corner - What the Catechism teaches about the devil and exorcism)
Although he has given public presentations on his ministry as an exorcist over the years, it has gained more attention recently with the release in January of the movie The Rite, which is based on the true story of the training for the ministry of exorcism of Father Gary Thomas, the exorcist of the Diocese of San Jose, Calif.
Father Thomas and Father Lampert received this training together while both priests were on sabbatical in Rome in 2005.
The film is based on the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio. Father Lampert was interviewed by the author and quoted in the book.
The priests observed the ministry of an Italian priest who is an exorcist.
Father Lampert said the ministry of exorcists is based on the Church’s belief that the devil and other evil spirits are real, and can be active in people’s lives in extraordinary ways.
This belief, he said, is doubted by many people in society today, who question the existence of the devil or believe that what might be described by some as demonic activity in a person is simply a mental illness.
“I think that there are a lot of people who think that maybe exorcism is a throwback to the Middle Ages,” Father Lampert said. “But lots of times, it’s because they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to think about the reality of evil or what that means or entails. Evil is a reality, but that doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of it.” (Related story: ‘Fear’ is not in the archdiocesan exorcist’s vocabulary)
Although many in the broader society and even within the Church question the need for exorcists, others—including many non-Catholics—seek out their ministry frequently.
“I get over half a dozen calls a week,” Father Lampert said. “It does consume a lot of my time and attention. I get calls from all over the United States.”
The high number of inquiries that Father Lampert and other exorcists receive—and the fact that there are only about two dozen exorcists in the United States—led Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., to organize a conference on exorcists in Baltimore last fall.
Bishop Paprocki called the conference as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance since the Code of Canon Law requires that priests receive explicit permission from their bishop before performing an exorcism.
About 60 priests, including Father Lampert, and 50 bishops attended.
“I think people are realizing that the devil is real, and the response to him and his followers needs to be real as well,” Bishop Paprocki said. “I think we went through a period of time there where people thought that perhaps these are just poetic or metaphorical references. But I think more and more people are seeing that this is something that’s real.”
Although the Church professes the devil and his activities to be real, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches priest exorcists “must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church,” and should only perform an exorcism after any natural explanation of the disturbances in a person’s life are eliminated.
“The exorcist is trained to be a skeptic,” Father Lampert said. “He should be the last one to believe that evil is truly present.”
He said that some mental illnesses can be misidentified as the activity of the devil.
“There are some [conditions] such as Tourette’s syndrome and schizophrenia where people can mimic some of those exact same things,” Father Lampert said. “The reality is, if one has a mental health condition, medication should be able to provide some sense of relief. But if it doesn’t, then that may indicate that something else is going on.”
To help determine the nature of a disturbance in a person that comes to him, Father Lampert will sometimes consult Carla Morgan, a counseling psychologist in private practice who is a member of SS. Francis and Clare Parish.
He will talk with her about cases that he is not yet sure about, although Morgan says her pastor has good abilities to assess a person’s psychological state.
“Father Vince is really savvy at identifying someone who might have a mental health concern, and who needs more than just his general counsel,” she said. “[He’s able] to pick apart what might be a spiritual issue versus what might be a little more exclusively a mental health issue.”
Sometimes Father Lampert deals with complex cases in which there is a mixture of mental illness and the activity of an evil spirit in a person.
For Morgan, there is an understandable although not a necessary interplay between mental illness and demonic activity.
“[Having the devil in your life] could cause some anxiety,” she said. “And I think [that] the flip side could also be true. People are vulnerable when they’re struggling with mental health issues. I think vulnerable people are maybe easier prey in a wide variety of issues in relational dynamics, including spiritual ones.”
Morgan said the people that Father Lampert ends up referring to her are those whose problems have a natural cause.
“My role as an exorcist, I believe, is to get people the help that they need, not necessarily the help that they think they need,” Father Lampert said. “The majority of the people that come to me already believe that they are possessed and that they need an exorcism.
“Through the process that I go through, I want to make that determination. And if the determination is that it’s not something of an evil nature but more of a mental [health condition], then I want to give them that help.”
Father Lampert said that only a handful of people that he has encountered in his six years ministering as an exorcist were actually possessed, and even fewer agreed to receive his pastoral care over an extended period—something that he said is often necessary to liberate a possessed person.
Still, Father Lampert believes that a large majority of the people who come to him do have the devil working in their lives in some other kind of extraordinary way. (Related story: There are four basic kinds of extraordinary activities of the devil)
Father Lampert contacted many of the people that he has ministered to as an exorcist to be interviewed anonymously by The Criterion. No one agreed to an interview.
“The primary reason why people I have worked with are reluctant to make themselves known or even to come forward is because of the social stigma that surrounds one who has acknowledged the presence of evil in his or her life,” Father Lampert said. “Many people today doubt the existence of evil or even a personified devil. There are those who think the Church is out of step with modern society by even having a priest designated to be an exorcist. It is due to this doubt that folks don’t want to come forward.”
They have come forward to Father Lampert, though. And his ministry to them has helped him become a better priest from his perspective.
“I think the appointment [as exorcist] has led me to a deeper insight and appreciation of what it means to be a priest, probably a deeper understanding of the sacrament of holy orders,” Father Lampert said. “I think that, since my appointment as exorcist, I have a stronger desire to be a better priest.” †