By Louise Roseingrave
The body was thrashing; it took six men to control its charged strength. The crowd was praying feverishly in Italian, ‘Santa Maria, prega per noi.’ Those words now etched in my memory. I had gone with an open mind to Medjugorje, Bosnia Herzegovina, where Our Lady has been appearing to six visionaries for the past 32 years. But I wasn’t expecting to meet the devil.
I was wandering by St James’ Church, where millions of pilgrims attend beautiful masses and prayer services, when I stumbled upon an exorcism.
I pushed my head in through the crowd. It was a horror show I will never forget.
The priest was bent over an Italian woman, aged in her 30s, whose face was contorted in rage.
Her lips were pulled back as she bared her teeth, hissing, straining, snarling and writhing. The priest had the bible in one hand, reciting scripture.
With his other hand, the priest repeatedly made the sign of the cross on the woman’s forehead. Another, younger priest was administering holy water for the woman to drink.
Her pupils were so dilated that her eyes were pools of black. Her hands were clawing at the air, the fingers curled and poised to scratch.
The scene was so grotesque and disturbing that a number of those praying were crying.
I had to fight back the tears myself. As if to rally each other against this diabolical enemy, the crowd formed a circle of prayer, holding hands.
There I was, in the middle of it, frightened out of my wits, yet utterly intrigued by this ancient ritual in action.
The demon inside hissed and seethed every time the crowd blessed the woman with holy water. The demon alternated that frightening sound with abusive cursing of its tormentors, the priests, uttered through its diabolical, other-worldly gurgling.
The woman’s face relaxed a little and she joined in the recital of the Rosary with those around her. The tension eased slightly.
We were all praying, literally, for her deliverance. “Prega per noi,” she said.
And then, out of nowhere, the woman’s neck muscles stretched and strained, pushing her head right into the priest’s face, the lips curled back, the teeth bared and this blood-curdling, hideous laugh emerged as if to say ‘fooled you.’
I found the whole thing so disturbing that I wondered what would become of this woman. How long would this process take? After 30 minutes or so (I had missed the previous two hours), the demon subsided, the woman’s body went limp, and the priests placed her in a seated position on a nearby bench. She looked dazed and confused, like someone coming-to after fainting. Exhausted, she began to cry.
Among the crowd, a teenage boy was so traumatised he burst into tears.
The rest of us departed slowly, shocked and deeply disturbed by what we had seen.
All that night, I couldn’t remove those images from my head. Recalling the screeching voice sent shivers down my spine.
There has been much speculation that the Pope performed an exorcism on a wheelchair-bound boy, at St Peter’s Square, earlier last week. It may have been a deliverance. Any kind of blessing serves the purpose of driving away evil. The Vatican and the Church play down the ritual of exorcism, perhaps to not frighten believers and not attract more bad press.
But in Medjugorje, where Our Lady is welcomed with respectful silence everyday at 6.40pm, instances of possession and deliverance are common.
“Wherever Our Lady is present, so is the devil,” I’m told by experienced visitors to Medjugorje. Demons in pilgrims become enraged in the holy presence of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as if they cannot bear the sanctity.
Some forms of exorcism are straightforward, such as deliverance, perhaps from a chronic addiction or other, debilitating behaviour. Instances of demonic possession can be drawn out and dramatic and can continue for days. When I ask what a person may have done to attract a demonic infestation, the answers vary, but the occult, I am told, particularly ouija boards, are significant dangers.
This sends me scurrying to confession. I believe in God and I go to mass. I pray and live a good life, though I am not always successful.
But stumbling into the midst of something so disturbing changes a person’s perspective.
Experiencing the hellish wrath of that demon had a profound effect.
I went to Medjugorje for one week and stayed for three. I had previously travelled the world seeking spiritual truth, staying at a Hindu ashram in Nepal, with Buddhist monks in the Himalayas, and lapping up the generous ethos of Islam in the Middle East and Indonesia.
I trained as a yoga teacher in India, moved to a cottage in the countryside in West Cork, and took part in some punishing pilgrimages at Lough Derg.
But nowhere else have I found the sense of peace, light and love that exists in Medjugorje.
Miracles abound every day there; personal, life-changing miracles.
Catholicism, with all its sacraments and sacred rituals, is celebrated.
Thousands kneel and pray before the Blessed Sacrament during the outdoor ‘holy hour’ in the basilica, yet you can hear a pin drop, such is the level of reverence.
Adults are routinely reduced to tears, sometimes great wracking sobs, as an understanding of years of pent-up pain and frustration is realised, the first step in healing.
I became a junkie for holy hour in Medjugorje, watching siblings, couples, friends, and families embrace in love as the 60 minutes drew to a close. In a world brimful of lies and deceit, I found the truth in Medjugorje.
And the truth is that the devil does exist, he’s just very good at duping people into thinking he doesn’t.