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Diabolical notions

Office of Exorcism in the Diocese of Novaliches

There’s a brewing plague of human immunodeficiency virus in the country; there are 4 million Filipinos using or hooked on crystal-meth; there’s 10 million forgotten citizens who have no access to clean water and no sanitary place to defecate – unless you call recycling a plastic bag pulled from the garbage as a sanitary place. There are 7,000 Philippine public schools that have no electricity; there are paedophiles within the priestly population – who knows how many? There’s a child-porn industry running rampant across the archipelago into which parents sell their daughters; there are beggars scavenging in every town and city. There’s rape around the clock – there was one every 53 minutes in 2016, a slight improvement over 2015 when a woman or child was force-used for sex every 51 minutes.

And yet, in the face of all this real and present social evil, a young priest – an exorcist, apparently – believes that plastic rosaries are what the faithful should really be concerned about right now. With a narrative worthy of a Dan Brown occult-fantasy novel – the likes of The Da Vinci Code and Inferno – Father Ambrosio Nonato Legaspi of Libera Nox (Free Night), Office of Exorcism in the Diocese of Novaliches, in the ecclesiastical province of Manila, is warning Filipino Catholics that they’re in peril of demonic possession.

Rosaries and Masonic medals, cursed with Satanic spells, he claims, are being given to Filipino Catholics to deceive them ”so that evil spirits will haunt them”. Recently, he warned listeners to his broadcast from Quezon City-based Radio Veritas, a Catholic radio station owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Manila: “… be careful, as the rosaries you might be using could actually be infested or cursed”.

However, he produces no evidence of any infestation; no evidence of a rosary or a coin causing demonic possession; nor any outward manifestation of evil emanating from them. Father Legaspi might have boosted the ratings for the monthly radio show and increased his stature as a celebrity exorcist, but as far as providing serious proof of his claims are concerned he makes no attempt.

What’s also notable in his handling of this issue is that traditionally, by profession and by nature, exorcist-priests shun all forms of publicity; they work well away from the public gaze. It’s not usual for them to advertise or disseminate their craft. Indeed, they believe in handling such matters with the utmost discretion. The last thing they want is to cause an unnecessary panic.

Moreover, indicators of “possible” demonic possession, according to the Roman Ritual, include the following phenomena: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed had no prior knowledge; supernatural powers – levitation, for example – or supernatural strength; aversion to holy things, such as crucifixes or holy water; profuse blasphemy and/or sacrilege. How much of that has Father Legaspi witnessed in Novaliches recently?

And, taking his warnings seriously for a moment, given their aversion to holy things, is it likely these dark forces would seek to reside in a rosary? For what he seems to have in his possession are rosaries and medals bearing “possible” occultist symbols – a serpent entwined round a cross; a pentagram – but, mischievous and extremely insensitive though they may be, in themselves they hardly confirm the presence of evil.

New Age religions – alternatives to the mainstream which sprung up in the West in the 1970s – are awash with the symbols and ideograms of occultism. And there’s every chance some of that paraphernalia is in the Philippines. But that’s a long stretch from concluding that they’re inherently evil and capable of concealing evil spirits.

For centuries, the Roman Church has battled to rid itself of superstitions. When the film of The Da Vinci Code was being released, Rome – via the Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; later Vatican Secretary of State – urged Catholics to boycott it, describing it as “a pot pourri of lies; a phantasmagorical cocktail of inventions”.

And that’s the normal reaction of Rome when preposterous conspiracy theories are used to guide belief away from the Church’s conventional wisdom. The last thing it wants is for members of its flock to have the living daylights scared out of them by some colourful story that sounds like a script for yet another supernatural-horror movie. Furthermore, Rome knows well the dangers of superstition; it’s paid a heavy price for it in the past.

Broadly, by the Church’s classification, superstitions fall into four “species“ – improper worship of the true God; idolatry; divination, and vain observances which include magic and occult arts. The last of these, then, is what’s at issue here.

Vain observances – as Father Legaspi should know – are beliefs and practices which attribute supernatural or preternatural powers, good or evil, for creating a desired effect that otherwise could not have been achieved. In the context here, that’s a roundabout way of saying that imbuing an object with magical properties – declaring a rosary to be the dwelling place of demons, for example – is a superstitious belief.

The bones of saints, sold as indulgences to mitigate the time a person’s soul spends in Purgatory – a practise at the time of Martin Luther that led to a schism in the Roman Church and fired up the Protestant Reformation – is one example of a vain observance. The superstitious belief among the simple-minded faithful of Europe throughout the Middle Ages was that a person could buy his way out of Purgatory by purchasing a pardon or a holy relic – the fragment of a saint’s bone; a piece of the ‘True Cross’; a nail from Christ’s wounds – from ‘pardoners’ licenced by the Church.

Attributing supernatural or magical evil powers to a rosary supposedly incanted over by a priest of the occult would almost definitely fall within the definition of vain observance. And, as such, is in direct conflict with the Church’s policy on superstitions.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) states: “Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite”.

In any event, a single priest has no authority to make a unilateral declaration about such an object. If he has real concerns, his duty is to provide Rome with the object along with sound independent evidence of its supernatural or preternatural properties.

The Vatican has many highly qualified scholars on this subject and centuries-worth of studies on the occult. They take their investigations extremely seriously – and part of that work is to debunk bogus and dangerous claims of dark magic which, if left unchallenged, can spread through the ranks of the faithful like wild fire.

Whether Father Legaspi is correct in his claims, with just over two years in the business of exorcism he is not of that profound scholarship. Furthermore, he is no more able to authenticate without corroboration the presence of diabolical entities in rosaries and medals as he is to authenticate an apparition of the Virgin Mother of Christ.

The real danger is that such stories can give vent to such beliefs; they can become self-fulfilling, leaving those who hear them troubled and disturbed. This can open the gates to mass anxiety, mass hysteria and mass panic. Father Legaspi must surely know, superstition feeds on itself; it needs no other fuel to energise it.

In August, hundreds of villages in Uttar Pradesh, India, became extremely agitated after women reported that braids of their hair had been cut off by prowling ghosts as they slept. The hair, they believed, was for purposes of black magic. But while authorities put this down to a factitious disorder that had led to mass panic, the villagers remain convinced that there was evil in their midst – and a 65-year-old woman with mental problems was beaten to death by angry villagers who believed she was a witch who’d cut the women’s hair.

Where the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines as a whole stands on this issue remains unclear, but we should point out, as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines – the Church’s episcopal authority – did on its website in covering this story, that Father Legaspi was “speaking as the head of the diocese of Novaliches office of exorcism (Libera Nox) and not for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines”.

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