Page 3 of 3   <      

What in God's Name?!

Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in
Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which deals with the aftermath of an exorcism conducted on Anneliese Michel, inset. (By Diyah Pera -- Screen Gems; Inset By Dpa/picture-alliance)

"Secularization has the church in its grip," says Ulrich Niemann, a Jesuit priest, medical doctor and psychiatrist who often has been called into exorcism cases by clergymen. "We do a lot for the Third World, but little for faith in a transcendent God. . . . The German church is far too cerebral."

Niemann doesn't consider himself an exorcist and doesn't perform the Roman ritual of 1614. "As a doctor, I say there is no such thing as possession," he says. "In my view, these patients are mentally ill. I pray with them, but that alone doesn't help. You have to deal with them as a psychiatrist. But at the same time, when the patient comes from Eastern Europe and believes that he's been impaired by evil, it would be a mistake to ignore his belief system."

After the Michel trial, German bishops and theologians formed a commission to review the exorcism rite, and in 1984 they petitioned Rome to change it.

The heart of the problem, they found, was the practice of speaking directly or "imperatively" to the Devil, that is, "I command thee, unclean spirit . . . " That part of the rite seemed to do the most damage, since it confirmed to the patient that he or she truly was possessed.

The Germans didn't get what they wanted.

"We were astonished when Rome issued a changed exorcism formula in 1999 which left open the possibility of speaking to the Devil directly," says Richter. "But you can't know for certain that a patient is truly possessed of the Devil."

Today, 30 years after Michel's death, with both exorcists and her father also dead (her mother couldn't be reached for this article), Michel is still revered by small groups of Catholics who believe she atoned for wayward priests and sinful youth, and honor her as an unofficial saint.

"Buses, often from Holland, I think, still come to Anneliese's grave," Barthel says. "The grave is a gathering point for religious outsiders. They write notes with requests and thanks for her help, and leave them on the grave. They pray, sing and travel on."


<          3

© 2005 The Washington Post Company