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30 years later, exorcism account still provokes striking imagery

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Poster from William Friedkin's "The Exorcist"

Poster from William Friedkin's "The Exorcist"


It was thirty years ago this week that the Rev. William Bowdern died. Bowdern had lived a fairly obscure life as a Jesuit Catholic priest in St. Louis until he was called upon in 1949 to lead the exorcism of a Lutheran boy from Maryland.

The experience became the basis for the novel "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty, which in turn was the basis for the 1973 movie with the same title. As he was researching the novel, Blatty wrote to Bowdern requesting an interview about the specifics of his experience but was turned down. Bowdern only replied that he knew the event was “real”.

We often find ourselves facing evil in the world. How else could we as people of conscience explain the actions of the brothers who allegedly carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, or the boasts of impending nuclear war by Kim Jong Un? Clearly, for most such actions are nothing but pure evil deserving condemnation.

But what of evil manifested in a being that can seize and control you? In our contemporary world where the use of reason and the scientific method has been largely accepted, most people would look dubiously upon such notions. Words like “demon” are seen as part of ancient mythologies or a more “superstitious” theology. Indeed, news of exorcisms is rare in the developed world.

Yet in the New Testament Jesus himself personally confronts and casts out demons and refers to Satan (diabolos) in a personal way, not merely as an abstract concept. During his visit to the city of Gerasa (see Mk. 5:1-20), he speaks to a demon inside a possessed man as if it was an autonomous being, conversing with “it” before expelling it into a heard of pigs who stampede off a cliff to their deaths.

Having been raised in an empiricist culture fortified by three degrees in the social sciences, I’m generally skeptical of such notions, so I once asked a friend’s wife, a forensic psychiatrist, how she might diagnose the possessed man Jesus exorcised based on his erratic behaviors described in Mark. According to her interpretation of his characteristics in the text, he was likely manic-depressive. Maybe he just needed the right meds.

Such explanations sound reasonable in today’s therapeutic culture, but I can’t help but recall what I heard following news of Bowdern’s death while an undergraduate at St. Louis University.

Walking down a hallway of the humanities building after class with a friend that day, we passed by the open door of the office of the Rev. Rosario Mazza, a Jesuit professor of modern languages. My friend, who knew Mazza, stuck his head in the office door to ask if he had heard of Bowdern’s passing.

Mazza gazed up, nodded his head, and after a few seconds motioned us into his small, book-lined office and told us to close the door.

We each took seats across from his desk, and he then began to tell us the story of when as a young priest living on the SLU campus he was called to perform last rites on a gravely ill elderly woman. He had borrowed an older priest’s service book, which he noticed was heavily dog-eared and contained notations in the section on the rite of exorcism. Mazza later asked the older priest, William Bowdern, if it was the book he used and he acknowledged that it was. It became an opening for Bowdern to discuss the experience.

Mazza (who died in 1988) proceeded to tell us what he had heard. The movie was an exaggeration in number of areas. The child’s bed shook but didn’t levitate, nor did his head spin around. The boy was verbally abusive, spitting on Bowdern and the other priests assisting him. Strangely, he would sing Italian opera, even though he was unfamiliar with opera and knew no Italian. He was also found one day to be “up in a corner” in his room. “Do you mean up on top of a dresser or chest?” I remember asking. “No,” Mazza said, “just up in the corner near the ceiling.”

After weeks went by and Bowdern and his assistants had grown increasingly stressed, tired, and lost weight, he one day noticed that the boy had become visibly agitated and even fearful. Bowdern inquired what troubled him, and he responded, “He’s coming for me. He’s walking toward me.” “Whose coming?” Bowdern asked. “A man carrying a sword that looks like it’s on fire.” Bowdern pressed the boy: “Do you know who he is? What’s his name?” He mumbled out “…” “Is it Michael?” Bowdern asked. “Yes,” the boy replied, verifying who Bowdern assumed the vision to be: the archangel Michael, the lord of hosts and demon-slayer mentioned in the books of Daniel and Revelation.

With that the boy experienced a severe bout of convulsions, only to emerge from the trauma in a state of calm and not knowing what had gone on, a similar description of the condition of possessed man after Jesus drove out the demon in Gerasa. Mazza went on to note that the boy grew up and moved to the Kansas City area and was employed as an airline pilot.

My friend and I left Mazza’s office in reflective silence, pondering the consequences of the story. If this really happened, it was testament to a profound reality few of us can comprehend. Or we’re we on the receiving end of an embellished tall tale?

To this day, neither of us thinks so. What’s certain, however, is that if William Bowdern’s experience was anything like we were told, he indeed could testify that it was “real”.

Tim Townsend is the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @townsendreport.

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