ROME, 1 FEB. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q: Can deacons perform the rite of exorcism or be appointed by their bishops to serve as exorcists? I'm not interested in doing so, but with more movies coming out recently on the topic, I am trying to anticipate this question from parishioners. — J.L., Oswego, New York
A: The word exorcism is used in two ways. First of all, it is used to describe certain rites in which the minister asks God to keep someone or something from the power of the evil one. This is the general sense of the rite of exorcism performed during baptism, and a deacon can obviously perform this rite since he is an ordinary minister of the sacrament.
Second, an exorcism is an order made to a demon in Christ's name to leave a person he has possessed or a place or thing he has infested. With respect to this rite, No. 11 of the Rite of Exorcism says, "The minister of the rite is exclusively a priest who by reason of his piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life is considered by the Ordinary as suitable to this ministry and has been expressly authorized by him to exercise it" [my translation].
Therefore, in this sense a deacon may not perform an exorcism.
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Follow-up: Deacons and Exorcisms [2-15-2011]
In a matter related to the question regarding deacons and exorcisms (see Feb. 1), an Australian reader asked about deacons and the sacrament of anointing the sick.
He wrote: "The increasing decline of the ordained priesthood and an increase in the married diaconate brings about a question in canon law regarding the giving of the last rites by a deacon — whether married or those on the way to the priesthood — and also by those employed or holding the title of pastoral associate within a parish environment. As a pastoral associate, I was recently asked to go through the rite for the dying for a very dear friend. I was a little uncomfortable doing this but nevertheless undertook the rite in the absence of the parish priest. I did not use the blessed oils. Given that a deacon becomes ordained through the laying on of hands, is there a canonical bar on deacons from anointing a person who is dying or in danger of death? I appreciate the fact that a deacon cannot give the sacrament of reconciliation and forgiveness."
There are two documents which throw light on this subject. First is the Code of Canon Law which states:
"Can. 1003 §1. Every priest and a priest alone validly administers the anointing of the sick.
"§2. All priests to whom the care of souls has been entrusted have the duty and right of administering the anointing of the sick for the faithful entrusted to their pastoral office. For a reasonable cause, any other priest can administer this sacrament with at least the presumed consent of the priest mentioned above.
"§3. Any priest is permitted to carry blessed oil with him so that he is able to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in a case of necessity."
Second, there is a document issued jointly by several offices of the Holy See in 1997 and dealing with the "Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in Pastoral Ministry." In dealing with the apostolate to the sick this document says:
"§1. In this area, the non-ordained faithful can often provide valuable collaboration. Innumerable works of charity to the sick are constantly provided by the non-ordained faithful either individually or through community apostolates. These constitute an important Christian presence to sick and suffering of the greatest importance. The non-ordained faithful particularly assist the sick by being with them in difficult moments, encouraging them to receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, by helping them to have the disposition to make a good individual confession as well as to prepare them to receive the Anointing of the Sick. In using sacramentals, the non-ordained faithful should ensure that these are in no way regarded as sacraments whose administration is proper and exclusive to the Bishop and to the priest. Since they are not priests, in no instance may the non-ordained perform anointings either with the Oil of the Sick or any other oil.
"§2. With regard to the administration of this sacrament, ecclesiastical legislation reiterates the theologically certain doctrine and the age old usage of the Church which regards the priest as its only valid minister. This norm is completely coherent with the theological mystery signified and realized by means of priestly service.
"It must also be affirmed that the reservation of the ministry of Anointing to the priest is related to the connection of this sacrament to the forgiveness of sin and the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. No other person may act as ordinary or extraordinary minister of the sacrament since such constitutes simulation of the sacrament."
These official documents clarify that the reason why the deacon can never be considered as a minister of the anointing of the sick is precisely because one of the possible effects of the sacrament of anointing is the forgiveness of sins. Pastorally it is always preferable for the sick person to make a sacramental confession immediately prior to being anointed; however, should this prove impossible, then, the anointing itself will grant the necessary forgiveness.
Since forgiveness of post-baptismal sin is intimately united to the priesthood, it follows that the reservation of this sacrament to priests derives from the nature of the sacrament. It is thus based on divine law and is not a mere legal barrier created by human law.