The recent sex scandals in the Catholic Church, along with their mishandling and cover-up by the hierarchy, were a dismaying spectacle. It was painful to learn that this pillar of our society had evidently succumbed at least in part to cultural decadence and relativism, and to see some priests and bishops acting more to make excuses and protect their turf than to set things right. The scandals revealed a sorry decline in fidelity to the Christian truth that undergirds our culture, and at a time when we face huge challenges from enemies without and evils within. It made you think with longing about the kind of men who not so long ago typified the priesthood in the popular imagination, the kind of man so perfectly epitomized by the recently departed Pope John Paul II himself.
#ad#These thoughts came to mind when I read of the death of the Rev. Walter H. Halloran in early March of this year at age 83. In 1949, as a young Jesuit scholastic, he assisted the Jesuit priest, William Bowdern, in the real-life exorcism that became the basis for the novel and film, The Exorcist. A straighter path to learning about that episode, however, the only officially documented exorcism ever to take place in North America, is to get the video or DVD of Possessed, a made-for-TV movie that aired in 2000, directed by Steven De Souza and starring Timothy Dalton as Father Bowdern. Adapted from Thomas Allen’s factually accurate book of the same name (albeit with details added or embellished, too, for dramatic effect), this film is closer to the true story than The Exorcist, and shows a full grasp of its deep spiritual implications and what it says about the warfare between good and evil.
With its unembarrassed respect for religion and the spiritual life and its bracing, unselfconscious portrayal of priests and their selfless commitment to their vocation and to those who call upon them in need; the film gives us a glimpse into a different sort of Church, a different sort of Christianity, and perhaps even a different sort of America. It is a reminder that Catholic priests are meant to be real men, not suave careerists, corporate insiders, or whiny sad sacks. (Surely there many priests even today who are made of this nobler mettle, but they are not the ones we hear much about anymore.)
Although a priest, Dalton as Bowdern projects such manly appeal that his female students pass notes to each other studded with little hearts and reading, “what a waste.” And as with Alfred Hitchock’s marvelous Marnie (1964), in which Sean Connery takes masterful charge of a deeply troubled woman, Dalton, also a sometime Bond, here exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand firmly for principle and to meet challenges that would daunt a lesser man.
As portrayed in the movie, the case of demonic possession is practically a textbook illustration of the consequences of disregarding traditional religious cautions. The victim is Robbie Mannheim (not his real name), the only child of a lapsed Catholic father and a not very religious Protestant mother. An elderly aunt who lives with them plays with the lonely child at a ouija board and fosters in him an interest in the occult. When she dies he begins to manifest strange behavior, for example, making large objects move suddenly and inexplicably. His parents appeal to a Lutheran pastor who takes a psychological approach, certain that the trouble will yield to rational explanation. Instead, Robbie’s behavior grows dangerously violent. Psychically damaged and physically harmed by his encounter with the possessed boy, the pastor commends him to the Catholics, who, he says, know how to deal with such things. The parents find their way to Fr. Bowdern, a professor at St. Louis University.
For his part, Bowdern (pronounced without the r) has his own demons, albeit of a lesser kind. He drinks, haunted by what he sees as an unforgivable failure during the war when he hesitated to crawl through a battlefield to administer the last rites to a wounded soldier, who, as a result, died without this final unction. Nevertheless, Bowdern and fellow Jesuit Raymond McBride (Henry Czerny) begin interviewing Robbie and his parents, eventually taking along the young Halloran (Michael McLachlin). Though at first doubtful, they come to believe that the boy is indeed diabolically possessed and they seek permission to do an exorcism.
Meanwhile, the hierarchy seems less concerned with spiritual than with temporal appearances. Christopher Plummer deliciously portrays a pompous, status-conscious archbishop thrilled that respect is rising for the Catholic Church in postwar Protestant America, as evidenced, for example, in the wedding-of-the-year excitement over the JFK-Jacqueline Bouvier match (the filmmakers have evidently moved the story up a few years). He is wary of the bad publicity that would result if word were to leak out that the Church in America is now practicing the Dark Age ritual of exorcism. Almost against his will, however, he finds himself impressed by Fr. Bowdern’s fervent and intensely voiced conviction that the boy’s soul is in mortal danger, so he grants permission.
The priests must carry on their regular duties over the days and weeks during which the exorcism progresses, even as they are subject to physical violence (Halloran’s nose is broken when Robbie wildly swings his fists in the air), assorted grotesqueries (the boy vomits and emits prodigious quantities of urine, and hellish messages form in his flesh), and the devil’s occasional forays into nihilistic humor. And the process presents even graver risks. In their researches, Bowdern and McBride learn about an exorcism that ended with the victim being freed from possession but with the priest going mad.
Indeed, more threatening than the possessed boy’s preternatural physical strength is his uncanny knack for seeing into the psyches of those attending him. Acting through Robbie, the devil taunts Fr. Bowdern with his failures and brings him humiliatingly face to face with his weaknesses and painful regrets, including that awful, fateful moment on the battlefield. Bowdern loses heart and is ready to give up, crushed by the awareness of his own sinfulness. Encouraged by McBride, however, he surrenders all to the Christ who also bore the weight of sin, and is transformed. Now he becomes truly formidable and every inch a match for the devil. Attended by his assistants, attired in his priestly robes, carrying the cross, he strides toward the room where Robbie is kept to do final battle with the forces of darkness. Strengthened by that which transcends all human weakness, he taunts the devil to do his utmost as he stands secure on holy ground.
And all the power of the Church, militant and triumphant, seems to come to his aid. The Alexian Brothers, an order whose mission is to treat the profoundly and violently mentally ill, accept Robbie in their hospital and help restrain him in the final, horrific stages of possession. Later, after the last piercing, wracking, wrenching, shattering episode in which the devil is finally and excruciatingly vanquished, Robbie tells Fr. Bowdern that he saw St. Michael himself come to do battle for his soul. It is all simply, utterly, thrilling! In real life, we learn, the boy never had a return of these ghastly troubles. He grew up to have a family and lead a normal life. His identity is still kept secret. The priests, unscathed by the experience, also resumed normal life. Fr. Halloran went on to win two Bronze Stars as chaplain of a paratrooper unit in Vietnam.
But the moral center of the story is Bowdern’s ultimately triumphant struggle with his own guilts and weaknesses and its implications for the rest of us. The worst temptations have ever been thus, snatching at us through our despair at our own failures and lapses of courage, but it is precisely at these moments of maximum vulnerability that we can access the power that lies beyond us, and face whatever challenges confront us with inner firmness and strength. Fr. Bowdern’s battle with the devil shows us that to fight an external evil we must recognize and subdue the evil within ourselves, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, lies beyond the power of forgiveness. Finally, the story is a warning to an increasingly secular society that some evils will not be conquered absent the power of God, and a reminder that Christianity is a fighting faith, not just about suffering and endurance, but about triumph as well.
And although much is being made of his final years of sickness and suffering, Pope John Paul II understood this too. He is the man who took a bullet for Christ, and refused to let it stop him. He knew that something higher was operating in his life and he was faithful to it to the end. He forgave his assassin as Christ forgave his persecutors and with that power of forgiveness he rose again triumphantly to carry on a papacy which helped bring down the evil Soviet Empire. . And now, having done all he was charged to do, he joins those many faithful priests who preceded him, those real men, those real men of God. May another generation be inspired by their example.
–Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.