Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some actions are loaded with prophetic significance.  When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, his action was more than a man posting a notice, it was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, it was more than a woman who was too tired to get up, it presaged the end of segregation. 

Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he says to the unclean spirit, “Quiet! Come out of him!” his action is more than freeing one possessed man, it announces the overthrow of Satan’s rule and the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Sensing the prophetic significance of Jesus’ command, the demon cried out, “What have you to do with us?” that is, “Go away, Leave us alone!”  Isn’t that the cry of many teenagers when rebuked by parents or other authorities, “Leave me alone!”  Like demons they want autonomy to do their own will.

In our own times, right here in Iowa, there was a forty-year-old woman who was possessed by several demons for twenty-six years.  Her name was Emma Schmidt. After being tormented during all those years, the bishop asked a priest to perform an exorcism.  It took place in a little town called Earling, IA, about ninety years ago, and it was the first fully authorized exorcism in the United States.  Emma had been sexually abused, mistreated and cursed by her father.  She had been a faithful Catholic but suddenly, beginning at the age of fourteen, she found herself unable to enter a church without violent thoughts entering her mind. She became conscious of sinister inner voices driving her to despair.  She was consumed with ideas of smashing the holy water fonts and harming the priests, she could not bring herself to receive communion, and all consecrated items caused revulsion. Soon she simply could not enter a church at all, she was being held back by an “interior hidden power.”  It got worse over the years, and she couldn’t get even a single night’s peaceful sleep. Obsessive thoughts nearly drove her to suicide.  Doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with Emma.  So, Bishop Thomas Drumm of Des Moines gave approval for an exorcism and he called on the experience of a Capuchin, Fr. Theophilus Riesigner, to do it.  

For 23 days before Christmas in 1928, he performed the rite of exorcism at a convent of Franciscan sisters who kept praying for Emma.  During the rites her body became so swollen and distorted that she was unrecognizable.  Once she levitated off the bed; another time she flew through the air and landed in a corner of the ceiling where she clung to the wall in an unearthly and terrifying manner.  She foamed at the mouth, made a variety of animal sounds, and screamed in Latin and German, languages she had never learned, but German was the exorcist’s native language.  Once her weight became so heavy that she bent the bed’s iron frame.  A horrible stench filled the room.  Even when her mouth was tightly closed she could still emit ear-piercing screams.  

Fr. Theophilus was never cowed by these frightful experiences.  After twenty-three days, when he commanded, “Depart, you fiends of hell. Begone Satan,” the demons fled and a loud howling sound filled the room until it faded far away into the distance.  The change in Emma was immediate.  She opened her eyes as if waking from sleep, smiled and said with child-like piety, “Praised be Jesus Christ!”  From that time onwards she was free.  Emma frequently visited the Blessed Sacrament, attended Mass and received Holy Communion with devotion.  She never experienced those afflictions again.  The account of this exorcism was published in a short book by Liturgical Press, titled: Begone Satan.1  

Exorcisms are convincing evidence for the existence of devils and hell.  But I learned another important and consoling lesson from Emma Schmidt’s experience.  During exorcisms devils try to scare off those who are present by revealing their sins.  But this didn’t happen to either Fr. Theophilus or to the Franciscan Sisters who were present.  When he asked why, the demons complained they have no knowledge of sins that have been confessed and forgiven.  After our sins are forgiven they no longer have any existence,  they are gone forever!  The Lord says, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” It’s a wonderful act of mercy when Jesus casts out devils, but it’s even more wonderful when he forgives our sins, when our sins are totally cast out by the love of Jesus who just can’t leave us alone!  Confession gives us more graces than any exorcism.

  1. Rev. Carl Vogl, “Begone Satan!” A Soul-Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession, Liturgical Press, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN, 1935. Foreword by Rev. Virgil Michel, O.S.B. Authorized by Rt. Rev. Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, O.S.B.  Translated by Rev. Celestine Kapsner, O.S.B.  A copy of this short book is available online at EWTN.  A movie, The Exorcist, was based on this story.  Emma Schmidt’s pseudonym was Anna Ecklund.