Who may use the Exorcism of Pope Leo XIII?

I remember once, many years ago, when I was more involved in pro-life activities, I was in a certain place praying outside an abortion clinic and the other good lay people who were praying there (I was a layman also at the time) were using the longer-form Prayer to St. Michael by Pope Leo XIII. It was in English. Someone I was with told me that wasn’t allowed. At that time it struck me that there might be a prayer that was “not allowed” — and it also got my attention and stayed with me.

Many years later, as a priest, I was told by various priests that it was permissible to use the prayers of Pope Leo XIII for exorcism — i.e., those prayers that contain this longer-form St. Michael Prayer. A screenshot of the beginning of these prayers in Latin is included with this post. It’s interesting, because the rubric that precedes it states clearly that only the bishop and those priests who have the authority to do so may use this prayer. “No matter”, I was told; “it is allowed now.” I remained skeptical: the rubric is clear.

One of the reasons I remained skeptical is because the Church does not handle such weighty matters in an informal, merely verbal way. This is, after all, a prayer of exorcism! And the Code of Canon Law is clear that only those priests who have been delegated by a bishop for exorcism ministry may use such prayers. If a prohibition is in writing, then ordinarily the reversal of that prohibition will be in writing also. But there are no decrees anywhere that say that any old priest may use prayers of exorcism whenever he wants.

Moreover, many priests come to understand that you do not go and provoke the devil. Using prayers of exorcism is a serious thing — and the devil is a legalist. If you do not have the authority to use those prayers he will very likely “show you”. None of us has what it takes to contend unarmed with the devil. We need to be covered and protected by legitimate authority.

A final consideration was that these prayers are not found in the modern books; they come from the older books. And a careful reading of Summorum Pontificum and the subsequent instruction, Universae Ecclesiae, teaches us that we are to follow the laws that are proper to those books in many cases. Here we have a clear indication that only a priest who is delegated or the bishop himself may use these prayers. The current Code of Canon Law is also clear and consonant on that matter. Therefore, we should consider that that indication still applies, especially in light of all the other foregoing considerations.

A post on the blog Rorate Cæli from a little over a year ago helps put this matter to rest. A private response given from the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei states clearly that the rubric indicated at the beginning of the text, that I have been referring to, still applies. “Any old priest” may not use this prayer in a public manner. The letter has some nuance, allowing for its use in private ways involving places, but even there I hesitate and counsel caution.

A priest who finds himself in a situation where he feels he may need “heavier” prayers like this should talk about it with his bishop and seek his blessing and delegation. The bishop’s permission is a powerful thing and a salutary layer of protection. Ephesians 6:12 — “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.

Fathers: do not too readily or too easily accept “conventional wisdom” about such weighty matters. As I learned, conventional wisdom was not only wrong but incredibly dangerous in this matter. I thank God that I remained skeptical and that I finally got the answer I sought. I share it here to help diffuse it more widely, since in recent years there is increased interest in this area and also increased misinformation. There is more that I could say about that but I will save it for another post.

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