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Chicago-area Catholic priest exorcist says devil is real

The Rev. Jeffrey Grob is Archdiocese Chicago's exorcist. | Courtesy Bob Herguth

The Rev. Jeffrey Grob is the Archdiocese of Chicago's exorcist. | Courtesy of Bob Herguth

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A skeptical seminary student’s disbelief in the devil is challenged when he travels to the Vatican to study with a veteran exorcist (Anthony Hopkins). Mikael Hafstrom (“1408”) directed the horror. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening imagery, and language.

The Rev. Jeffrey Grob, one of two exorcists in the Chicago area, doesn’t usually grant interviews.

But the 49-year-old priest whose dissertation influenced the book “The Rite — The Making of a Modern Exorcist” has made exceptions in recent weeks.

Grob hoped that through interviews and speaking engagements he could downplay Hollywood hype surrounding Friday’s release of a movie with the same name as the book. And, he wanted to create learning experiences about the often misunderstood subject.

“The devil is real, but of course, in a highly advanced, scientific, scholastic, all-knowing society ... people think of it as medieval nonsense, that the Church invented the devil to keep people afraid, under their thumb or to scare children,” Grob said. “I wish that was it. I’d be out of a job.”

Requests for exorcism have been on the rise worldwide in recent years. The Roman Catholic Church last year proposed building a center in Poland dedicated to conducting exorcisms.

In 1999 the Archdiocese of Chicago appointed its first exorcist since the diocese was formed in 1842. Grob is only the second exorcist in a diocese of more than 2 million Catholics.

Grob is also the go-to exorcist for several nearby dioceses that don’t have their own, including the Diocese of Gary, which encompasses Lake, Porter, LaPorte and Starke counties, and the Diocese of Joliet, which includes Naperville.

The Diocese of Rockford has had its own exorcist for a couple of years, but he has yet to perform an exorcism in that time.

The book, the movie

Matt Baglio, a California-based journalist, used excerpts from Grob’s doctoral dissertation to shape his book “The Rite — The Making of a Modern Exorcist.”

The film with the same name traces the true account of the Rev. Gary Thomas as he underwent training as an exorcist in Rome because there was no training available in the United States at the time.

The seminarian in the movie is named Michael Kovak, portrayed by Colin O’Donoghue. Anthony Hopkins has top billing as the unorthodox Father Lucas, who uncovers for Kovak the devil’s reach into a place as holy as the Vatican.

Grob, who has known Thomas for a number of years, said Thomas told him the book is an accurate account of his experience as an exorcist in training.

“I don’t know yet if the movie is,” said Grob, who is as skeptical of Hollywood versions of books as he is of claims of demonic possession.

The Roman Catholic Church approaches exorcism with a skeptical eye because so few warrant an actual rite, which is performed only with permission of the church after medical, psychological and psychiatric causes are ruled out by specialists.

Grob, who notably refers to the devil as “the evil one,” declined to say how many exorcisms he has performed or from what geographic areas the victims came.

“True exorcisms are extremely rare,” is as specific as Grob would get. “I’ve never kept track. I have no notches on my belt.”

Grob said he has seen objects move by themselves and has experienced demons attempting to engage him in conversation while he performed an exorcism.

“It changes you,” Grob said. “It deepens your faith.”

Along with that, Grob said he wanted people to know that possession is something that doesn’t happen overnight.

It develops gradually, he said, and usually to those who open themselves to it.

Prayer and the sacraments are the best defense against demonic possession, said Grob, a congenial man with a patient, calming, voice — not the fire and brimstone one might expect of someone who drives evil from its victims.

“Evil does exist. The devil does exist,” he said. “But we have something greater. With Christ there’s nothing to fear.”

Blessings have helped

Diocese of Gary Bishop Dale Melczek said before any exorcism rite is considered the diocese refers requests to the Rev. Michael Heimer, stationed in eastern LaPorte County.

While not an appointed exorcist, Heimer has studied exorcism for 20 years and has for more than a decade been called to assist in cases of suspected supernatural events. Most of those appeared to have been cases not of demonic possession, but of demonic obsession — in which a demon attaches itself to a person or place.

“There seems to be a lessening awareness of diabolical influence in people today,” Heimer said. “Many times I think it comes through spiritual or psychological wounds people experience in life.”

In one case a college student, whose roommate was suspected of being involved in the occult, was tormented continually, experiencing lights turning on and off by themselves, and in one instance all the pictures and a crucifix falling into the center of the room.

The obsession seemed to follow the girl when she returned home. So at the girl’s mother’s request Heimer blessed and prayed over every room in the house, and the harassment stopped. A year later, it started again and required follow-up by Heimer.

Heimer also dealt with a woman who saw people in the hallway of a home she had just moved into in LaPorte County.

“When she went to bed an old woman at the foot of her bed grabbed her. She had scratches all over her back,” Heimer said. He blessed the house and the occult activity stopped.

There are about 15 people in the Catholic Church in the United States trained in the rite of exorcism, Grob said. More are receiving training, as evidenced by a two-day training session where Grob spoke in November in Baltimore.

Grob said when he was a seminarian training for the priesthood prior to his ordination in 1992, “There wasn’t a single solitary class on demonology. If you’re not training the clergy, how do you expect it to trickle down to the parishes?”

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