To hell and back 


Those who can't afford real magazines and so read this column regularly may remember that last week I mentioned reading "The Exorcist" when I was 11 years old. It was a terrible idea for a kid who was more easily shaken than an Etch-a-Sketch. It caused me to stop sleeping and live like a pageant finalist: in constant, quivering expectation, knowing that I was next.

Twenty-five years later the movie "The Exorcist" has been rereleased, and the devil is again as popular as butterfly clips. Maybe it's just that all things '70s are back -- halter tops, lanky hair, minor drug problems -- and during that decade, between "The Amityville Horror," Alice Cooper, "The Omen" and Gene Simmons, the devil was hotter than an Orlando boy band.

In fact, the devil is so hot that the Archdiocese of Chicago has just confirmed the appointment of its first full-time exorcist in 160 years. New York already has one. And the pope, according to the Sunday Times of London, recently tried to perform an "impromptu" exorcism in St. Peter's Square ... and failed.

Hostile takeover

What happened was that a 19-year-old girl "yelled obscenities at him in an agitated and cavernous voice clearly not her own" and demonstrated "superhuman strength" when the pope's goons tried to get rid of her. The pope prayed with the girl, trying to rid her of her demon squatter. It was reported that this had only a temporary effect.

Maybe it was the "impromptu" part that caused him the trouble, but it seems like the effect of God's emissary on a 19-year-old girl should last longer than Clairol temporary hair colors. If I was acting up in public, my mom could make me stop just by saying, "You look like the village idiot," and I don't know that she and God have ever had so much as an informal chat. Plus, you'd think the pope could handle a heckler. To immediately decide that someone who hates your act is possessed is like thinking that any man who doesn't flirt with you is gay.

In any case, it makes me sorry I'm neither a pope nor an exorcist. I could get a job and free housing deciding who is pure evil, instead of it just being a third-rate hobby like it is now.

One reason for the appointment of the Chicago exorcist is not necessarily that people themselves are evil, but they are supposedly more vulnerable to evil. According to theologian the Rev. James Le Bar in a Reuters news story, "As people lose their respect and reverence for life, spirituality and human beings, the devil can move in," although it seems that given the relative order and comfort of modern times, reverence for life has actually increased. And if you've been in a Borders lately you know you can't spit your gum for hitting a book on spirituality.

Another reason for the appointment, which was made a year ago but confirmed just recently, was that a French cardinal suggested it. You know the French think we're idiots. It was probably a practical joke on their part, which would make their stock rise in my heart inestimably.

Whatever the reason, having educated people put an exorcist on the payroll in the year 2000 is thoroughly intriguing. His identity is even being kept a secret, like a restaurant reviewer's. One guesses the Lord of the Dark Armies can't figure out who his regional nemeses are unless their names are printed in the paper.

A touch of evil

The secret agent has not performed any rites in Chicago yet. He does have a list of people asking for his services, though it is unclear who needs them. How you can tell if someone is possessed or just an asshole, I don't know; maybe there are instruments that can detect high levels of evil, or maybe a priest just knows, like those Chinese doctors who know by taking your pulse that you've got acne.

LeBar also said the appointment of an exorcist was "healthy" because it treats as fact a "reality beyond what we can see." It sounds like a pretty arbitrary decision to be making, which unseen realities are "healthy." It might be considered healthy to recognize demons as real, but if I leave oatmeal cookies out in my yard for the fairies I can't see but am sure are there, I won't be "healthy," I'll be "delusional." Nonetheless, it's an alluring proposition, and I know I'd rather be told the devil made me do it instead of being responsible for "it" myself.

Maybe the church is trying to keep up with the times. Hollywood is making devil movies again, so they are making devil news. And the rerelease of "The Exorcist" will make us fear the devil again. If demonic possession is fresh in people's minds, the reasoning might go, maybe they'll seek protection in church.

It could be a hell of marketing job. Or a devilish coincidence.


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