The Devil and Mr. Hernandez

A man possessed, plumber turned amateur exorcist Paul Hernandez wants to get the Hell out of Phoenix.

"Paul's reaction was nothing," Tierney says. "He was totally calm."

Midway through the horror-film classic The Exorcist, troubled mom Ellen Burstyn -- seeking help for her possessed daughter -- asks a modernist Jesuit priest how a person can find someone to perform an exorcism.

Paolo Vescia
Cage Keller (left) is a former juvenile delinquent who says Hernandez rescued him from demonic voices that urged him to commit violent acts.
Paolo Vescia
Cage Keller (left) is a former juvenile delinquent who says Hernandez rescued him from demonic voices that urged him to commit violent acts.

"Well, the first thing, I'd have to get them into a time machine, and get them back to the 16th century," the priest responds. "It just doesn't happen anymore."

In fact, exorcisms never completely disappeared, but they definitely went underground for at least two centuries. In his 1999 memoir An Exorcist Tells His Story, Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of Rome, bemoans the fact that even within the Catholic Church, exorcism has long been a source of embarrassment.

"The Catholic hierarchy must say a forceful mea culpa," Amorth writes. "I know of only a few [Italian bishops] who have ever practiced or who have assisted during an exorcism or who are adequately aware of this problem."

Because the topic startles so many people, exorcism priests have generally maintained a low profile over the years. But when the Archdiocese of Chicago hired a full-time exorcist in 1999, church officials were conspicuously public, and unapologetic, about the move.

"Our position is that it's a necessary thing," says Chris Spoons, assistant communications manager for the Chicago archdiocese. "We believe this is just something that a diocese should have. There should be a person to go to in times of trouble.

"People don't really understand. They think, 'It's just some mental case. What are they doing going to a priest?' But the church believes that is not always the case, although that is the first thing you look at."

Spoons emphasizes that the church has made concessions to modern psychiatry, and subjects people to mental evaluations before considering an exorcism. But when the priest decides that he has eliminated every possible psychiatric explanation for the problem, and determined that it could only be caused by some external force, exorcism is the next step.

Beyond the pop-culture impact of the film, there are many theories on the recent growth of exorcism. The most persuasive one is that baby boomers are simply more comfortable targeting an outside influence, even a demonic one, for their behavioral problems, than blaming themselves. In an era of relentless, impatient self-enhancement, it's somehow more comforting to believe that your problems can be solved with a simple exorcism than with a lifetime of painstaking therapy.

But the growth of exorcism has been problematic for the Catholic Church, which worries that mavericks like Hernandez will take up the cause on the church's behalf.

For that reason, last November the Vatican issued new guidelines that limit exorcism to priests who've received prior approval from their bishop. This policy was a direct response to Bishop Emmanuel Milingo, a Roman bishop who had taken to performing public exorcisms in the streets of Rome, without any prior individual consultation or psychiatric evaluation.

Popular radio evangelist Bob Larson isn't Catholic, but his approach to exorcism is probably what the Vatican had in mind when it decried "hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism" in the field of exorcism.

Larson has helped to make exorcism a spectator sport in America, addressing packed convention halls and "provoking the devil" until audience members go berserk. Larson sees exorcism's increasing popularity as a reflection of an increasingly decadent society, which makes people vulnerable to Satan.

"It's more popular because the need is more prevalent, and the need is more prevalent because of a general moral decline of culture, and because we're so much more of an abuse-based society," Larson says. "It is that kind of thing that makes evil more bold.

"In culture at large, the film has had an impact. But that's not the reason people come to me. They hear about me through word of mouth, and they've got a problem that wasn't generated by the movie, it's been generated by torment that they're suffering. For instance, they may hear a voice that's telling them to kill themselves. So someone suggests that they see an exorcist."

Hernandez says he's not familiar with the Vatican's recent decree, but he insists that he's well within his rights as a practicing Roman Catholic. And although he's not officially sanctioned by the church, he's not devoid of supporters in the local clergy.

In recent years, he has turned to the pastors at Our Lady of Sorrows Church for help, and says they have provided him with emotional strength -- as well as continuous supplies of holy water. "Those guys are real heavy hitters," he says. "I really turned the corner when I met them."

In 1997, when Hernandez missed a court date related to a traffic ticket, he asked then-pastor Kenneth Dean to write a letter on his behalf. Dean complied, and his March 24, 1997, letter described Hernandez as a "lay exorcist." It explained that his exorcism work occasionally "makes him dysfunctional," rendering him unable to show up for appointments because he's too busy tackling demons. For that reason, Dean asked the judge for leniency.

Hernandez says he's never discussed exorcism directly with Our Lady of Sorrows' current pastor, Joseph Pfeiffer, but believes Pfeiffer supports his work. In a New Times interview, however, Pfeiffer says he's never performed an exorcism himself, and demonstrates a skeptical attitude about the practice.

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