Chasing Out the Devil in Uruguay
Famed Exorcist Says Rite Has Little in Common With Movies
By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Foreign Service
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- First things first. Yes, the Rev. Julio Cesar Elizaga said he saw the movie "The Exorcist" and liked it. But he said that a real exorcism has almost nothing in common with the cinematic version.
If anyone would know the difference, it is Elizaga, a Roman Catholic priest who over the past 47 years has performed, by his own count, more than 100 exorcisms in this tiny, heavily Catholic country tucked into South America's southern Atlantic coast. Never has he seen a body levitate, or a neck pivot 360 degrees, or green vomit.
"That only happens in the movies," he said in an interview at his office in Montevideo, the capital. "A real exorcism is really much more ordinary than that."
The vast majority of people who are referred to him suffer from mental illness, he said. He refers most of them to local psychiatrists and mental health professionals.
But the Devil does exist, he said, and his emissaries occupy the bodies of people from time to time. Possession is never involuntary. You have to actually court the Devil, to actively seek his dark magic, before he can invade the flesh. Faith is required, if not in God, then certainly in the Devil, he said.
"Most of the time it is people who are angry with God," he said. "They broke up with a boyfriend, or someone close to them dies, or they didn't get a job that they really needed. They become angry. They turn on God and seek evil. It's not like a cold or the flu. You can't just catch it."
At 74, Elizaga is an iconic and a curious figure in Montevideo. He has traveled to Brazil, Lebanon and other countries studying exorcisms and cults. He writes books on exorcisms. His parish is immensely popular. The police said they have asked his help in solving difficult cases. In 1986, Pope John Paul II named him a consultant to the Vatican on non-Christian cults.
The Vatican recognizes diabolical possession and exorcism and authorizes the bishop of a diocese to appoint a man of "piety, knowledge, prudence and holiness of life" to carry out the ritual.
In 1999, in an 84-page leather-bound volume, the Vatican updated its rules for conducting the ancient rite of exorcism. At the time, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Estevez, a senior Vatican prelate, said, "Exorcism is designed to chase away the demons or liberate someone from the demonic influence."
Elizaga said that someone who is truly possessed will cower or shirk at the sight of him as they would overtly religious symbols, as if repulsed. At times, possessed people will speak in foreign languages they have not studied, but he said it is more common to hear them speak in the third person, sometimes in a voice far different from their own.
In the last exorcism he performed, more than a year ago, a 25-year old woman kept repeating: "You can't have her. I won't give her up," recalled Elizaga.
"She was sweating profusely," said Gerardo Pereira, one of the parishioners who assisted in the ritual. "And her chest was heaving. And on her face there was this look of pure rage. I have never seen anything like it. She was cursing us. I felt pity for her because there was this beautiful girl who was going through this ordeal. But at the same time I felt fear. This was real."
That exorcism lasted the entire night, said Luis Lombardi, who also assisted in the exorcism, adding that it took four parishioners to hold the woman down as Elizaga prayed over her.
Elizaga said an exorcism is no more than a prayer, a "liberation prayer." Neither holy water nor a crucifix is necessary.
What is important is repeating the prayer and laying hands on the person until the demonic forces are purged, he said.
He said the number of demonic possessions rises in times of economic crisis.
"Unemployment, family dissolution, alcoholism, drugs, the influence of television, uncertainty about the future; all these things play a role," he said. "Friendships dissolve and people don't have that person they can rely on to help them sort out their problems."
Gustavo Fernandez, an assistant police chief of Montevideo, said investigators occasionally ask Elizaga for help. He cited a case in which Elizaga helped solve a string of graveyard vandalisms here last year that turned out to be teenagers involved in a non-Christian cult.
Said Elizaga: "Not everyone understands what we do. But I live in a world of deep religious experiences. That is my world."