Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on ABC27-WHTM in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 13, 2020.
ELYSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — “The Exorcist” was a classic and creepy movie in 1973. But demonic possession is not just the stuff of Hollywood. Every Catholic diocese in the world is concerned about evil spirits in 2020, and they’ve all been instructed to name a priest to combat them.
ABC27 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, recently sat down with the man tasked with denying the demonic in the Harrisburg diocese.
Knoebel’s Amusement Resort might be its most famous attraction, but Elysburg is home to a lesser-known haunt, and its chaplain is Father John Szada.
Szada delivers mass every morning in Latin. “It’s an experience of holiness, an experience of silence, an experience of union with God,” he said.
Helping believers find God is one part of Szada’s job. Another: chasing away the devil.
“(The) bishop said to me, ‘I have something I have to tell you. I’d like you to be my exorcist.’ That was it. Literally, that was it,” Szada recalled.
That was in 2011. There were only around 15 exorcists in America then, but there are now over a hundred who attend a yearly conference to share tips and trade secrets.
Every two years, it’s off to Rome for the International Conference of Exorcists, a group enthusiastically endorsed by Pope Francis.
“The name of the exorcist is submitted to Rome and it’s kept on file in Rome,” Szada said.
When asked if he has seen a demonic possession, Szada laughed and said, “More than one.”
Job one, Szada says, is ruling out mental illness which weeds out many claims.
But there are rare instances, and Szada remembers them vividly.
“A person was possessed and it took four fully grown men to hold this person down,” Szada said.
Another client didn’t know Latin but answered Szada’s questions fluently in Latin. That was the work of the devil, he insists.
And then the local girl who was hospitalized.
“Doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on. Tranquilizers were not working. They stepped out to consult, they came back in and found her climbing up the wall, literally, like Spider-Man,” Szada said.
He said ‘The Exorcist’ is fairly accurate, minus the head-spinning. The church has guidelines on how to perform exorcisms which include prayer and ritual. The bishop must approve each case. The possessed rarely approve.
“You sprinkle holy water on a person and they really react, pretty good clue that this is demonic,” Szada said.
“The notion that there are spirits that can take over our bodies personally doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s also really, really fascinating,” said Matthew Sayers, associate professor of religion at Lebanon Valley College.
Sayers was raised Catholic but is now an atheist who doesn’t believe in demonic possession but understands why the Vatican does.
“Having an exorcist in every diocese is literally just having a safety plan in place. Having a fire extinguisher in every hallway in the building. We’ve got one there just in case something comes up,” Sayers said.
The Las Vegas diocese does not currently have a designated exorcist, according to church officials. They said the diocese would seek assistance from a neighboring diocese or another bishop.
The ancient art of exorcism is needed in modern times more than ever, according to the Vatican, which says possessions are at an all-time high. At every mass, Catholics are now praying to Saint Michael the Archangel.
It specifically asks for protection from the devil, “thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls,” the prayer concludes.
When asked if he had been face-to-face with the devil, Szada quickly responded, “Oh, yeah.”
He also said he’s never scared because God works through him and God is stronger than Satan.
When asked what he thought about people calling him nuts, Szada chuckled, “Thank you.”
Szada says he has performed seven actual exorcisms in nine years and the best way to ward off evil spirits is to stay holy. He also warns against using Ouji boards and Tarot cards which, he says, can invite the demonic.