Exorcisms in the Roman Rite of Baptism

According to the concise definition of St. Thomas Aquinas, every sacrament is a “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”1 This short expression incorporates the two essential realities of the sacraments of the Church, namely, that they are both signs and causes of grace. They are signs insofar as they represent, by visible figures and audible words, the divine effect to which each sacrament is instituted by Christ; they are causes insofar as the rites really “effect what they signify,”2 namely, the sanctification and salvation of men. Indeed, concludes St. Thomas, “the sacraments cause by signifying.”3 There is thus a close correspondence between the visible sacramental signification and the invisible effect. 

This visible signification of each of the sacraments is made up of two distinct elements known as “matter” and “form,” after the two principles of Thomas’ hylomorphic metaphysics which cohere in any material substance. A bronze statue, for example, is a single substance; its matter is bronze, which is formed into the shape desired by the artist to constitute the statue. Until it is so formed, the bronze matter is in potency to becoming a number of different things: a sword, a set of plates, a pile of coins. Only in the interaction of matter and form does the bronze statue emerge as a single substance. Likewise, in the case of the sacraments, “matter” refers to the material, visible element, while “form” refers to the words spoken by the minister which determine the polyvalent matter to a single sacramental signification.

In the sacrament of baptism, for instance, the mere act of washing with water is “in potency” to many possible significations: it can imply cleaning, cooling, playing, and so on. The words of the baptismal rite, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”4 are therefore needed to determine the matter to the particular signification of baptism. Together, the washing with water and the words come together both to signify and to cause a supernatural effect: spiritual rebirth unto new life in Christ; the death of the old man and the rising of the new; the remission of original sin and the guilt of punishment, and the imprint of an indelible baptismal character on the soul. 

The signification constituted by these two principles of matter and form is essential to the sacrament of baptism. If either principle should be missing or changed, such that the signification is qualitatively different, the sacrament is not conferred. So long as the essential signification is intact, however, the sacrament is validly celebrated; St. Thomas holds that baptism with salt water is valid, for example, because it carries the same “sign value” of water generally, although fresh water remains preferable.5 What is necessary for the efficacy and validity of the sacrament, then, is a clear and unambiguous signification, not deviating in a qualitative way from the signs and words instituted by Christ Jesus and handed on to the apostles.

What, however, of the many other ceremonies surrounding this essential signification, such as exorcisms, blessings of water and salt, lighting of candles and so on, which the Church commands in the solemn celebration of her sacraments, but which were not explicitly commanded by the Lord and do not properly belong to the matter and form of the sacramental signification? Clearly they do not pertain immediately to the signification by which the sacramental effect itself is conferred. Are these ceremonies necessary? What do they add? Is anything lost if they should be omitted? On this point, St. Thomas draws an important distinction between what is essential and what is fitting: 

In the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament. Essential indeed, to the sacrament are both the form which designates the principal cause of the sacrament; and the minister who is the instrumental cause; and the use of the matter, namely, washing with water, which designates the principal sacramental effect. But all the other things which the Church observes in the baptismal rite, belong rather to a certain solemnity of the sacrament.6

Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and efficacious celebration of the sacrament, something important is lost if these ceremonies are not celebrated. St. Thomas teaches that they serve three distinct purposes: in the first place, “to arouse the devotion of the faithful, and their reverence for the sacrament,” which would be greatly lessened if the ceremonies were stripped down to the essential rite; secondly, “for the instruction of the faithful,” who are urged by the beauty and mystery of these ancient ceremonies “to seek the signification of such like sensible signs”; third, and finally, “because the power of the devil is restrained by prayers, blessings, and the like, from hindering the sacramental effect.”7 For these reasons, “although those things that belong to the solemnity of a sacrament are not essential to it, yet they are not superfluous, since they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being.”8

The Latin phrase here translated as “well-being” (bene esse sacramenti) is instructive. These other ceremonies are not essential in that they do not pertain to the sacrament’s very being; if they are omitted, as in a case of emergency, the sacrament is still validly conferred. Nevertheless, they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being in that the sacrament is better celebrated if these ceremonies be observed. “Because [the sacraments] are signs they also instruct,” though this is not their primary end, as the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council notes: “It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs, and should eagerly frequent those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.”9 Therefore, in order that the faithful might better understand the sacraments, the post-Conciliar Church extensively revised these ceremonies. Her pastoral concern was primarily that the first two ends of the ceremonies be better achieved.

The third end of the solemn ceremonies is of particular interest for this paper, however. Besides arousing devotion and providing instruction for the gathered community of the Christian faithful, St. Thomas comments that certain of these additional prayers and blessings are actually efficacious in restraining demonic powers from impeding the effect of baptism (“cohibetur Daemonis ab impedimento sacramentalis effectus”). To be sure, the sacraments confer grace by the very fact of carrying out the rite (“ex opere operato”), as definitively decreed by the Council of Trent.10 If one is baptized according to the rite of the Church, presuming sincere faith on the part of the one receiving the sacrament and right intention on the part of the minister, then “by the performance of the rite itself”11 one receives the gift of new life in Christ, the remission of original sin, and the indelible imprint of baptismal character marking one forever as a child of God by grace.12 It would seem, then, that these effects are not susceptible of impediment by demonic powers. What, then, could possibly be impeded? As between the essential rite and the accidental (though not therefore superfluous) ceremonies, St. Thomas here makes a helpful distinction between the essential and the accidental effects of baptism:

The essential effect of Baptism is that for which Baptism was instituted, namely, the begetting of men unto spiritual life … But the accidental effect of Baptism is that to which Baptism is not ordained, but which the Divine power produces miraculously in Baptism: thus on Rom. 6:6, that we may serve sin no longer, a gloss says: this is not bestowed in Baptism, save by an ineffable miracle of the Creator, so that the law of sin, which is in our members, be absolutely destroyed. And such like effects are not equally received by all the baptized, even if they approach with equal devotion: but they are bestowed according to the ordering of Divine providence.13

The accidental effect of Baptism, then, has to do with diminishing the power of concupiscence in the newly baptized, “the law of sin, that is in [our] members” (Romans 7:23 DRA),14 which is evidently accomplished by God in some more than in others. St. Thomas here attributes this difference in effect to the providence of God, which, one must remember, contains not only that which is positively willed by God, but also that which is permitted by Him. “One who provides universally allows some little defect to remain,” the Doctor comments in his article on divine providence, “lest the good of the whole should be hindered … Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent.”15

Even the demons are allowed to work only according to the permissive ordering of divine providence for the good of the whole, as for example in the case of blessed Job, of whom the Lord said that “there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man” (Job 1:8), while nonetheless allowing Satan to test his faith: “Behold, he is in thy hand, but yet save his life” (Job 2:6). It would seem, therefore, that the Lord might speak likewise to the demons regarding a newly baptized catechumen, commanding that they “save his life,” namely, the new life of grace which is the essential effect of baptism, yet placing him in their hands as regards the accidental effect, which they might be allowed to diminish or impede.

The role of the exorcisms which the Church has historically commanded to be prayed before the essential rite of baptism now comes into sharper focus. St. Thomas himself answers the question “whether exorcism should precede baptism?” unambiguously in the affirmative. Though these traditional prayers of exorcism belong to the ceremonies which are not strictly essential to the sacrament, he argues,

Whoever purposes to do a work wisely, first removes the obstacles to his work … Now the devil is the enemy of man’s salvation, which man acquires by Baptism; and he has a certain power over man from the very fact that the latter is subject to original, or even actual, sin. Consequently it is fitting that before Baptism the demons should be cast out by exorcisms, lest they impede man’s salvation.16

Notably, he quotes the authority of Pope Celestine, who wrote that catechumens “should not come to the font of life before the unclean spirit has been expelled from them by the exorcisms and breathings of the clerics.”17 Thomas likewise concludes that these exorcisms “are not to be omitted save in a case of necessity. And then, if the danger pass, they should be supplied … Nor are they supplied to no purpose after Baptism: because, just as the effect of Baptism may be hindered before it is received, so can it be hindered after it has been received.”18 

In the last editio typica of the Roman Ritual promulgated before the Second Vatican Council, the rite of baptism is divided into seven stages, the first six of which each include an explicit prayer of exorcism. In the first stage, the candidate for baptism is received by the priest at the door of the church, at which time “the priest thrice blows softly in their face” and prays, “Depart from them, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.”19 Before entering the church, the priest lays his hands on the candidate’s head and recites a prayer which includes the petition, “Sever all snares of Satan which heretofore bound them.”20

In the second stage, which takes place in the vestibule of the church, the priest places a pinch of blessed salt on their tongue, the blessing of which begins with an exorcism of its own: “God’s creature, salt, I cast out the demon from you … I purify you by the living God … to be a preservative for mankind.”21 The third, fourth, and fifth stages are a series of exorcisms of increasing vehemence, culminating in the final and definitive exorcism, which begins with the words, “I cast you out, unclean spirit.”22 Only after these rites had been completed is the candidate taken into the baptistery for the sixth and seventh stages, at the gates of which, indeed, a final prayer of exorcism is recited: “Surely it is no secret to you, Satan, that punishment is your lot, that the day of judgment threatens you, that day of never ending torture, the day that shall be like a flaming furnace … Therefore, accursed one, deservedly doomed, pay homage to the living and true God … Begone and stay far away!”23

The solemn liturgy culminates in the seventh stage, when the essential rite of baptism is celebrated at last and the candidate is clothed in the white garment and given the blessed candle. Notably, all these ceremonies were to be supplied, omitting only the essential rite of baptism itself, in the case of a child baptized in an emergency or an adult convert who had already been baptized, just as St. Thomas argues above.24

These six exorcisms, conspicuously absent from the post-conciliar rite of baptism, seem to have fallen under the Council’s category of “useless repetitions”25 in the liturgy to be eliminated and, furthermore, of “features” which “have crept into the rites of the sacraments and … have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today,” which the Concilium ordered to be revised in order “to adapt them to present-day needs.”26 Indeed, the revised rite of baptism says “almost nothing about the devil or original sin. The one reference is narrative and not unambiguously applied to the child at hand.”27 This reference occurs in a single prayer before baptism invoking the Son of God, who was sent “into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil.”28 This prayer, however, does not include an explicit formula of exorcism such as “I cast you out.” Rather, after narrating the historical mission of the Son, it concludes with the words, “We pray for these children: set them free from original sin, make them temples of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell within them.”29 

Certainly, as St. Thomas reminds us, “the Church is ruled by the Holy Spirit, Who does nothing inordinate.”30 Nevertheless, there is a certain uncomfortable incongruity in the fact that, “for decades now, Catholics have been listening to (and informed by) a baptismal rite that has almost nothing in common with the way baptismal liturgies had been conducted for twenty centuries in East and West — with the exception of the formula of baptism itself, which remains intact.”31 Though the manifest and laudable intention of the Council Fathers in revising the rites was to further the edification and devotion of the faithful—the first two purposes of these inessential ceremonies noted by St. Thomas Aquinas—one wonders whether they may have inadvertently neglected the third, namely, restraining the devil from hindering the sacramental effects.

It would seem also that the Christian instruction of the faithful is not assisted, but handicapped, by the removal of references to the Devil and to original sin from the rite, since the primary and essential end of baptism is to free and deliver the newborn Christian from these hostile powers. Finally, one wonders whether there may be a connection between the excision of exorcisms and the astronomical percentage of “sacramentalized but non-evangelized” Catholics in our day, who, despite having received the essential effects of Baptism, seem not to have reaped the fruit of grace and the infused virtues.

The example of St. Paul, who, upon arriving in a new territory, first cast out the demon of that place before preaching the Gospel to the people, ought to be instructive for us.32 One might surmise that he knew from experience the power of the Devil to hinder the faith from taking root among his subjects. As the Church marks fifty years since the promulgation of her revised rites, and with the exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching”33 still echoing in her ears, may she enrich the well-being of her rite of Baptism by restoring thereto the ancient prayers of exorcism, that the Devil might be restrained by her prayers from impeding her most vulnerable newborn children from receiving the fullness of the effects of the sacrament of faith.


  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 60, a. 2, in Summa Theologiae: Tertia Pars 60-90, vol. 20 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute, 2012), 3.
  2. ST, III, q. 62, a. 1, ad. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 22.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q. 27, a. 4, ad. 13, trans. Robert W. Schmidt, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), at http://dhspriory.org. Emphasis mine.
  4. Cf. Matthew 28:19.
  5. Cf. ST, III, q. 66, a. 4.
  6. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87-89.
  7. Ibid, 88.
  8.  Ibid, ad. 4, 89.
  9. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (4 December 1963), §59.
  10. Council of Trent, Session 13, March 3, 1547, Decretum de Sacramentis, can. 8, in Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals: Latin/English, ed. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, and Anne Englund Nash, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 1608.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ST, III, q. 66, a. 9, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 85-87.
  13. ST, III, q. 69, a. 8, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 136.
  14. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  15. ST, I, q. 22, a. 2, ad. 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), at http://dhspriory.org.
  16. ST, III, q. 71, a. 2, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 150-151.
  17. Ibid, sed contra, 150.
  18. ST, III, q. 71, a. 3, ad. 3, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 151.
  19. The Roman Ritual, trans. Philip T. Weller, S.T.D. (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), 85.
  20. Ibid, 89.
  21. Ibid, 90.
  22. Ibid, 100.
  23. Ibid, 104.
  24. Ibid, 110. However, the instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Inter oecumenici, dated 26 September 1964, ordered that these prayers of exorcism be omitted when supplying the ceremonies of baptism, thereby changing the historical practice of the Roman Church. This instruction preceded the promulgation of the revised rite of baptism in 1969.
  25. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §34.
  26. Ibid, §62.
  27. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five (19 June 2017), at http://www.onepeterfive.com.
  28. Rite of Baptism for Children, ed. and trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1989), 47.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, sed contra, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87.
  31. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five.
  32. Cf. Acts 16:11-18. This is the moment of Paul’s arrival in Macedonia, his first foray into Western Europe, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from going into Asia. Paul and his companions had gone down to “the river side, where it seemed that there was prayer” (v. 13), namely, a place holy to the local peoples where they worshipped their gods. The “pythonical spirit” referenced in v. 16 is the spirit of the Oracle of Delphi, the idol par excellence of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Cf. also Ps 95:5: “omnes dii gentium daemonia.” St. Paul neither needed nor wanted the testimony of demons to support his preaching. Once he had cast out this spirit of divination, he was free to preach the Gospel to those people on its own merits.
  33. Benedict XVI, “Letter of His Holiness to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum [On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970],” 7 July 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s