(Above: St Francis sends a Brother to expel demons from a city.)
Although the practice of Exorcism was not confined solely to clerics in the early-Church, since at least the third century, the Catholic Church formally ordained men to the minor order of Exorcist. The office of Exorcist was not a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders but as a sacramental was instead first conferred on those who had the special charism to perform its duties and later to those studying for the priesthood. By 1972, the minor orders were no longer bestowed individually, yet, in the revised Rite Of Exorcism from 1999, it states that local Bishops can appoint certain priests into a permanent position as “Exorcist.”
Remarkably, while not an ordained cleric, St. Francis of Assisi performed several exorcisms during his lifetime. The most noteworthy are recorded by his contemporary in the most authoritative “Life of St. Francis” by Thomas of Celano. The first instance seems to be the curing of a Franciscan Brother, who, during possession episodes, would fly up into the air. Following soon after, a man approached Francis and asked the Saint to free his wife from the devil. At this “exorcism,” Francis said to the demon possessing the woman: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you in holy obedience, evil spirit, to go out of her and never dare to hinder her again.”* On another occasion, the mere sight of Francis caused the possessed to “tremble and roll about on the ground.”
From the writings of Celano, its clearly evident that Francis had a very acute gift of discerning spirits; and conversely, the spirits would recognize him. For example, concerning one Franciscan Brother, who was acting strangely, Francis said: “ I saw a devil…on the back of that disobedient brother, clutching him by the neck.” There are many such cases as these: Brothers who were tempted and troubled – being freed from their suffering by Francis; or Francis predicting the future evil actions of others. One famous episode took place in the city of Arezzo, where Francis saw numerous demons hovering about the town and stirring up the populous to civil war. In his stead, Francis commanded a particularly holy and worthy Brother to travel to the city and expel the demons – which he did.
There are numerous such stories from the Franciscan hagiography. And, most importantly, these occurrences are certainly not relegated to the past. For instance, I know of a very holy and kind American priest who has strikingly similar gifts to that of Francis: for, he once saw a rather ugly and menacing demon lingering about me not long after I left the porn industry. With the authority of Jesus Christ and His Church, the same priest expelled the demon from my presence – and it was never seen again. As, we must not forget – we often have Saints in our presence.
* I placed quotation marks around “exorcism,” because Francis did not perform an exorcism proper as described in The Ritual. For the most part, his casting out of the devil involved intense prayer by himself and the various brothers with him, words of admonition against the demons, and the power of his sheer physical presence.