DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE- Meet Father John Szada, the Harrisburg diocese exorcist

Digital Exclusive

The Exorcist was a classic movie in the 1970s, but demonic possession is not just the stuff of Hollywood. Every Catholic diocese in the world is concerned about evil spirits and they have all named a priest to combat them.

Knoebels Amusement Park might be its most famous attraction, but Elysburg is home to a lesser known haunt. It’s Chaplain is Father John Szada, who says mass every morning in Latin.

“It’s an experience of holiness. An experience of silence, an experience of union with God.” Szada said.

Helping believes find God is one part of Szada’s job. Another is chasing away the devil.

“The bishop said to me ‘I have something to tell you, I’d like you to be my exorcist.’ That was it. Literally that was it.” Szada said.

That was in 2011, there were about 15 exorcists in America then. There are more than a hundred ow. They attend a yearly conference in the U.S. to share tips and trade secrets. Every two years, it’s off to Rome for the International Conference of Exorcists endorsed by Pope Francis.

“The name of the exorcist is submitted to Rome and it’s kept on file in Rome.”

Job one, Szada says, is ruling out mental illness, which weeds out many claims. There are rare instances, according to Szada, where a person was possessed and it took four fully grown men to hold the person down. Another didn’t know Latin but answered Szada’s questions fluently. He insists its the work of the devil. One story also involved a local girl who was hospitalized.

“Doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on, tranquilizers weren’t working. They stepped out to consult. When they came back in, they found her climbing up the wall.” Szada said.

He says the Exorcist movie is fairly accurate, minus the head spinning. The church has guidelines on how to perform exorcisms. There’s prayer and ritual. The Bishop must approve each case.

Professor Matthew Sayers teaches religion at Lebanon Valley College. He 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 ancient art of exorcism is needed in modern times more than ever, according to the Vatican, which says that possessions are at an all time high. At every mass, Catholics are now praying to St. Michael the Archangel. It specifically asks for protection from the devil.

Szada says he’s never scared because God works through him and God is stronger than Satan. Szada says he has performed the seven actual exorcisms in nine years. He says the best way to ward off evil spirits is to stay holy. He also warns against using Ouija boards and tarot cards, which, he says, can invite the demonic.

In the Erie Catholic Diocese, leaders won’t speak specifics about it’s ability to perform exorcisms, other than to say, “Due to the very serious nature of this topic, Bishop Persico prefers not to discuss it publicly. The appropriate protocols ​and trained personnel are in place within the Diocese of Erie.”  

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