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Healing Mass offers help for the 'possessed'

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Healing Mass offers help for the 'possessed'

The devil and those who fight him are back in vogue

By DUDLEY ALTHAUS

HOUSTON CHRONICLE

June 11, 2011, 10:32PM

PUENTE JULA, Mexico — These are precarious, at times palpably evil, days in Mexico.

Slaughter, greed and graft eat at public life. Lust, wrath and envy corrode individuals, families, entire communities. Many credit the maladies to poverty, pridefulness or pitiful politics.

But legions of the worried faithful believe that demons beset this land. Literally. And only casting them out, through exorcism or other spiritual means, will save it.

"This awakens the faith," said Francisco Ugalde, a Roman Catholic priest who says he has been exorcising demonic spirits from people in this southern Gulf Coast village for more than 30 years. "People learn to trust God, to speak to God.

"Our struggle is not with human beings but with demons."

Popularity of practice

Many Christians believe that battle has been waged since the birth of the faith, when Jesus expelled diabolic spirits from the afflicted and spurned Satan's offer of worldly empire in exchange for allegiance.

Though considered by some to be the relic of a less informed age, exorcism - a priest or minister's expulsion of demons through prayer - remains a tenet of the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions.

The practice's popularity has come and gone. But now, amid what some see as enlightenment and others the evil of the current age, both the devil and those who war against him are back in vogue, especially in the predominantly Catholic nations of Italy and Mexico.

While full-blown diabolic possession and exorcisms remain aberrations, the Catholic Church, and some Protestant ones, celebrate "healing" or "cleansing" services to liberate people from lesser torments. The ministry of the Catholic charismatic movement, including the Catholic Charismatic Center in south Houston, focuses on such healing.

"The enemy doesn't have control of them, but it has a high influence," Michael Scherrey, the priest in charge of the Houston center, said of the people who manifest a demonic presence by falling into convulsions or seeming to channel spirits during such services. "The Mass is an incredible healing gift."

Evening services

Among believers, the devil is real, and he's very busy.

Hundreds from across Mexico gather each Friday evening at the St. Michael Archangel Church in Puente Jula, a village of 2,000 about a dozen miles inland from the port city of Veracruz. Led by Ugalde, the faithful pray and sing, imploring deliverance from the demon.

"Pray! Pray! Pray!" Ugalde told the gathering. "Forgive. Forgive. Forgive."

A small wing of the church is reserved for the seriously possessed, or those who believe they are threatened by it. The worst cases are tied with medical gauze to rough wooden benches, awaiting Ugalde's individual attention which follows the Mass. Some of the bound screamed and cursed for hours as the service dragged into the night.

"Shut up," moaned one woman before recoiling as if hit by a sucker punch before collapsing, her delicate throat puffing like a viper's and voice throttling into a deep, menacing growl.

Roman Catholic exorcists say a majority of those who believe and act as if they're possessed suffer psychological or physical maladies.

"They make it seem like physical possession is common. But it is rare, very rare," said Pedro Mendoza Pantoja, the 75-year-old priest and psychologist who is chief of the Mexico City Archdiocese's eight-member exorcist squad.

In 11 years as an exorcist, Mendoza said, he has never once encountered a victim physically possessed by Satan. But he has sent demons fleeing from around the tormented "many times."

"The possession of our hearts, of our sentiments, that is the worst," he said. "The devil through all his effort has always been able to possess the sentiments of people."

Marauding gangsters, whose war with each other and the government has killed nearly 40,000 people in recent years is sign enough of Satan's labor and growing influence in Mexico, both Mendoza and Scherrey said. But they point to other factors - abortion, homosexuality, adultery - that they claim have carried Mexican society to the precipice of evil.

Widespread belief in witchcraft in parts of Mexico, as well as the gangster-fueled cult of Santa Muerte, Holy Death, leaves many people here particularly susceptible, the priests believe.

"There is a cultural aspect that affects the population, a belief in magical solutions," Mendoza said. "There is a lot of superstition because of a lack of faith."

And perhaps in no corner of Mexico does magic hold greater sway than in the tropical villages and towns in the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, where Ugalde ministers.

Four hours of prayer

At the recent healing Mass, Ugalde was well into the fourth hour of an extended Mass aimed at freeing those snared in Satan's grasp when women in the crowd began falling to the floor, apparently consumed by baleful spirits. Led by the priest, hundreds of worshipers in the large, airy church and courtyard continued praying, singing and clapping hands while the apparently possessed joined the women's cries.

"The demon wants to damage life. And woman is the source of life," Ugalde explained as the troubled parishioners cursed and tried to silence him in Spanish, English and indecipherable tongues.

One woman barked from midafternoon to nearly midnight. Next to her, a young man screamed curses, spit at his parents, bounced and shook the heavy bench to try to break free of his ties.

"They make possession a show," said Mendoza, who writes off many such public displays as hysterics. "When they have any problem, any depression, they say they are possessed."

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/world/7606636.html


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US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX)

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