The term "scrutiny" sounds judgmental, invasive, and antiquated. What's worse, the ritual includes an "exorcism", which sounds medieval, sensational, and horrific. The Roman Ritual of the Catholic Church calls for the performance of three scrutinies in the weeks preceding the baptism of adults. It is, quite literally, a hell of a way to welcome new members.

The celebration of the scrutinies today meets extraordinary resistance. The rituals seem inappropriate and repetitive. They seem to focus overmuch on people who want to join the church during a time of year when other parochial needs from Scout Sunday to the Bishops' Emergency Appeal vie for attention.

The readings pose their own problems. The celebration of scrutinies presumes accepting the option to proclaim the scriptures of year A. Some object that doing so removes some very fine readings from the assembly for three consecutive weeks during years B and C. If scrutinies are celebrated at only one parish mass those years, a homilist faces two different sets of readings for the same weekend, doubling the preparation.

On the other hand, one can also meet uncommon exuberance for scrutinies. Liturgists with a love for ritual find in them something new and unusual to try. The scrutinies invite inventive adaptations that include singing, kneeling, handlaying, and expanded roles for godparents and catechists. Some planners try to make them more dramatic than the ritual suggests, sending the entire assembly to its knees to feel the weight and pain of corporate sin. Some directors of catechumenates favor the scrutinies so much they invite catechumens as well as candidates, even some unconfirmed Catholics, to kneel and receive the prayers of exorcism.

In the late 1960s, when the postconciliar study group assembling the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults after the Second Vatican Council released its newly minted scrutinies to the dioceses assigned to experiment with the new ritual, the members received so many objections that they redrafted the texts and restructured the ritual. The results improved the original efforts, but some of the objections they heard about terminology, demonology, and just plain manners have never gone away.


The scrutinies are not a newfangled contraption of liturgical experimentation. They have a long and honored history in the church.

Pre-ritual antecedents appear already in the new testament. Paul, for example, preached that in order to be baptized one had to repent. But what exactly did one repent of? Some were enslaved to sin. Others trusted in cosmic forces. Still others worshiped pagan idols. In all these cases, becoming a Christian meant turning from former belief to acceptance of Christ as the core of one's being.

In the new testament, baptism was the only action that clearly ritualized this conversion from one allegiance to another. But candidates were expected to undergo change before then. Gradually the church developed additional ritual structures that helped people on the road to this conversion, and which also helped the church discern if the conversion was sincere. Those structures involved exorcism and scrutiny.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 183-253) mentions the practice of exorcisms in his community, but their scope was broader than baptism. He said Christians proclaimed the scriptures and the name of Jesus during exorcisms, in order to ameliorate someone's spiritual and physical well-being. In one homily, his reference to exorcisms presumes a catechetical setting: "The faithful teachers put to flight numberless demons, that they may no longer fool souls by their trickery." This description could relate to baptismal preparation, but it could also pertain to more general instructions for the faithful.

Prebaptismal exorcisms first clearly appear in the Apostolic Tradition. The date, authorship, and even title of this work are subject to much scholarly debate. Commonly assumed to be a description of early third-century Roman baptismal rites by Hippolytus, the document seems more likely now to be a compilation of sources dating from the early third to mid-fourth century which originate from more than one geographic location. Even so, its prebaptismal exorcisms antedate others.

In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens passed through stages of preparation. Entrance into the final stage required an examination of their behaviors and testimony from the community. Those chosen for baptism underwent daily handlayings and exorcisms for their purification. The bishop deferred the baptism of those who were not found good and pure, because they had not heard the instructions with faith. The daily exorcisms, then, ultimately served to help the leaders of the community judge the moral and spiritual disposition of those appealing for baptism. Since faith comes from God, the community spent time at prayer to clear the way for that gift, and then discerned whether the one seeking baptism had accepted it.

The Apostolic Tradition makes one more reference to exorcism. On the Saturday morning of their baptismal day, the chosen experienced a last exorcism, this time with the bishop. This exorcism, taking place within a more extensive complex of ritual elements including exsufflation and sealing of the forehead, ears and nose, concluded the investigation and permitted a final decision to celebrate or defer baptism. The presence of the bishop is significant, as well as his exsufflation. He completed the previous exorcisms by blowing, a definitive action to send away the exorcised evil spirit with the Holy Spirit. His presence represents the authority of the final exorcism and of the decision regarding baptism.

Later, at baptism, the Apostolic Tradition reports that those to be baptized renounced Satan and then were anointed with the oil of exorcism, as the presbyter said, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." The profession of faith and baptism followed. Here the oil of exorcism was applied as a final sealant, completely covering the naked initiate, who proved the success of the exorcisms by stating aloud a renunciation of Satan.

In the Apostolic Tradition, then, an examination of candidates’ behaviors admitted them to proximate preparation for baptism, during which they experienced exorcisms to advance their purity. Before baptism the bishop performed a final exorcism and exsufflation; the candidates renounced Satan, and were anointed with oil.

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-c. 387) also mentions a series of prebaptismal exorcisms, men in one group, women in another. Egeria (c. 381-384) verifies that throughout the forty days of lent, (Monday through Friday for eight weeks), those to be baptized gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with their godparents and representatives of the faithful. Prayer began at dawn with an exorcism by the clergy. The Mystagogic Catecheses (380-390), attributed now to John of Jerusalem, recall that ministers breathed onto the catechumens during these exorcisms to burn the devil with fire by invoking the name of God, purging sin and sending demons fleeing. The bishop then conducted the catechetical session each day, for three hours.

The presence of exorcisms in Rome is attested by Pope Siricius in 385. He says the elect spent forty days before baptism, when they fasted, prayed, and were purified by exorcisms.

Scrutinies are first mentioned by Ambrose of Milan (339-397). They examined the holiness of candidates by exorcising their bodies and spirits. "So far the mysteries of the scrutinies have been celebrated. These sought out whether impurities clung to anyone's body. Through the exorcism not only of the body but also of the soul, sanctification was searched for and grasped."

A short time later in Rome, the Canones ad Gallos (c. 400) mentions a "third scrutiny," accompanied by anointings, which manifested the power and grace of God. The enumerative description leads one to conclude the existence of a series of at least three scrutinies this early in Rome.

Augustine (354-431) reports the inclusion of exorcisms among penitential disciplines for lent like fasting and keeping vigils. Some exorcisms occurred within scrutinies. During the scrutinies ministers exorcised the catechumens with exsufflations; catechumens stood on sack cloth or goatskin as a sign of their humiliation and renounced Satan.

Quodvultdeus of Carthage (+454) celebrated exorcisms very similar to Augustine's. The last one differed from the rest because it was conducted in public. Standing barefoot on sackcloth the candidates for baptism were examined and exorcised, recalling the scripture, "Scrutinize my heart, O God." This ritual reached a climax with the renunciation of the devil: "Let us renounce the devil, his pomps, and his angels."

In the eastern church, however, even though prebaptismal exorcisms continued, nothing is stated of scrutinies.

For example, exorcisms appear in Antioch among the works of John Chrysostom (c.344-407). Once again, they seem reserved to the period immediately preceding baptism as part of a daily instruction. Their intent was to purify the spirit and to impress the soul with devotion, that the devil might hastily depart. Closer to Easter those to be baptized removed their outer clothing and shoes and approached exorcists dressed only in loincloth. On Good Friday at three in the afternoon, at the hour when the good thief confessed his faith to Jesus, those to be baptized renounced Satan and professed their allegiance to Christ. They were then anointed with chrism, cruciform on the forehead in the name of the Trinity.

Again in the East, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) compared exorcisms to a trial in court. Satan had laid claim to the catechumens and exorcists argued their case. Satan claimed ownership due to their sinful behavior; the exorcists pleaded that Jesus has ownership because he has conquered death. God ultimately settled the case against Satan. Throughout this trial, catechumens knelt in silence, wearing only their undergarments, heads bowed and hands out like beggars. Exorcisms also preceded the catechumens’ recitation of the creed in the presence of the bishop. Their statement of faith demonstrated for him the effectiveness of the exorcisms in their prebaptismal formation.

Theodore’s catechumens renounced Satan shortly before baptism. It could have been on Good Friday as Chrysostom had arranged, but Theodore does not say. On that occasion catechumens resumed the posture and vesture of an exorcism and renounced Satan in the presence of the bishop. He anointed them on the forehead, as one marks a sheep or a soldier for ownership or allegiance. Theodore expected catechumens to renounce whatever kept them from Christ -- pagan philosophies and leaders of heresies, magical interpretations of nature, games, hydraulic organs, and dance, which Satan "sows in the world under the appearance of amusement in order to arouse the human soul to its own deprivation."

The pattern that emerges from the early church is that exorcisms formed a part of immediate prebaptismal formation. They were conducted within the framework of prayer to help those preparing for baptism renounce their former way of life. The success of those exorcisms could be measured in scrutinies, which implied an examination into their spiritual or moral effect. These spiritual exercises received ritual affirmation in the final prayers the morning of baptism or the preceding day, when the bishop conducted the final exorcism. This often included an exsufflation. The exorcisms culminated with the renunciation of Satan and an anointing that sealed the work of exorcism before baptism.


By the sixth century the exorcisms and scrutinies were changing. The meaning of the term "scrutiny" was becoming diluted, and the entire catechumenate compressed into the baptismal liturgy. Since most of those being baptized were infants instead of adults, the series of scrutinies of behaviors and spiritual growth gave way to a single ceremony that borrowed their ritual language.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, probably a Syrian from the turn of the sixth century, describes a baptism that seems to have compressed all the prebaptismal rituals together for a single celebration on the same day. The author reports no slow, deliberate preparation for baptism marked by ascetic exercises. Instead, the catechumen underwent a series of prayers immediately beforehand. In this case, those petitioning for baptism removed their shoes and outer garments; the deacons turned them west; they lifted up their hands in a gesture of rejection and renounced Satan three times, blowing. After confessing faith in God, they were stripped by the deacons and anointed with oil. Baptism followed.

In Rome, John the Deacon also treated exorcisms and scrutinies in his sixth-century letter to Senarius of Ravenna. Judging from the letter, the meaning of scrutinies had become obscure. "What is a scrutiny," Senarius asked, "and why are infants scrutinized three times before Easter? And what does the expectation and purpose of a scrutiny accomplish?"

For John, the whole purpose of baptism was to conquer Satan; therefore, the entire preparation and celebration assumed an exorcistic tone. This may be why he stands alone in presenting exorcisms early on in baptismal formation. He distinguished terms for those in the two stages of baptismal preparation, "catechumens" and "elect", and placed exorcisms within the first stage. During these a minister blew upon the catechumens to make the devil flee and to raise up catechumens from darkness into the glory of God's love.

The second stage of formation, however, was marked by three scrutinies, already in evidence in Rome from about 400, which were organized to ascertain whether or not the exorcisms took effect. They followed a renunciation of the devil, and an examination of their knowledge of the creed, their belief in God and redemption, and the effects of this faith in their lives. If the elect passed this screening, they were anointed with the oil of sanctification on their ears and nostrils to seal out whatever might poison them and let in the faith that leads to understanding. John's scrutinies did not incorporate exorcisms; they followed exorcisms and served as a check on knowledge, faith, sincerity, and behaviors.

The Gelasian Sacramentary gives two different images of scrutinies. The earliest extant edition of this document comes from c. 750 in Chelles, France. It compiled several traditions into one source. The more ancient scrutiny source (early sixth century) places them on Sundays three, four, and five of lent. The Gelasian offers a set of mass prayers for those Sundays, but not the text of the scrutinies themselves. For example, it contains the opening and communion prayers for what it calls the scrutiny Sundays, but not the rubrics for the ritual. One theory holds that the Sunday scrutinies would have numbered six, not three, except that the rite of election was settling in for the first Sunday of lent, ember days took over the second weekend, and Palm Sunday the last. That left only three Sundays for scrutinies.

The Gelasian does not report which lectionary readings enhanced these celebrations. Popular theory holds that the gospels of the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus accompanied the Sunday scrutinies during this period; the evidence is suggestive, rather than strong. The passages are listed in the oldest Roman source of gospels for mass, the Würzburg Evangelary (c. 645). But they were proclaimed then on weekdays: Friday of the third week of Lent and on Wednesday and Friday of the fourth week. During the fourth and fifth week of Lent, the evangelary led the community through a semi-continuous reading of John's gospel, but the stories of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus appear out of sequence, leading one to surmise that these passages were assigned to those dates to fulfill some other purpose -- like a scrutiny. The Bergamo Sacramentary of ninth century Milan indicates that the Ambrosian Rite was proclaiming these same three gospels on the second, fourth, and fifth Sundays of lent. So the theory is that sometime before the mid-seventh century the Roman rite had also grouped these three gospels on Sundays of Lent, probably to match with the scrutiny mass texts of the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays as in the Gelasian.

The theory continues, then, that by the mid-seventh century, scrutinies moved to weekdays. Further evidence for weekday scrutinies can be found in Ordo XI, which probably inspired the second collection of scrutiny texts that appear in the Gelasian. Ordo XI spread out the prebaptismal rites to seven occasions during Lent, all of which it called "scrutinies". Seven scrutinies during lent might seem intense, but the number had diminished from the daily exorcisms and instructions of the fourth and fifth centuries. Ordo XI, though, applied the term broadly to embrace the most involved and the simplest of prebaptismal rituals. Furthermore, by this time, the candidates for baptism were almost all infants. So the extent and context of the scrutinies had changed considerably.

Among the seven scrutinies of Ordo XI, the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth consisted primarily in signations and exorcisms. The others included extra rituals -- the giving of salt, the presentations, and the preparatory rites of Saturday morning. The series of exorcisms was conducted first for the boys and then for the girls, and they included prayers addressed to God as well as imprecations leveled against Satan; e.g., "Therefore, condemned Devil, accept your sentence."

The Gelasian also presents a series of rituals that align with the seven scrutinies of Ordo XI. However, the ordo clearly separated the occasions; the Gelasian did not. In fact, it is not clear from the Gelasian texts if they represent seven separate rituals or one very long one. But they are arranged chronologically in the book between the third week of Lent and Palm Sunday. So it appears that they were to take place within that frame of time. As in Ordo XI, this part of the Gelasian presumes that exorcisms will appear in every part of the prebaptismal ritual structure. The acolyte imposed a hand on the elect while the presbyter offered a prayer to God. Then the presbyter addressed the devil, asking Satan to leave those chosen for baptism. The presbyter signed the foreheads of the elect. He alternated these prayers between the boys and the girls. He concluded with a prayer to God, "May these elect keep firm hope, right counsel, and holy doctrine, that they may be fit to receive your grace." In the past, exorcisms built toward a renunciation, but since the Gelasian was dealing with infants, the exorcisms stopped at this point.

On Holy Saturday morning, the Gelasian and Ordo XI present another group of rituals. These include another exorcism by the presbyter, an anointing of those to be baptized on the breast and between the shoulders, and the renunciation, presumably made by godparents in the case of infants. No renunciation and anointing occurred later that day at baptism itself, since these had taken place in the morning.

Amalarius of Metz (c. 780-850) offered a curious interpretation of scrutinies. He indicates that the term "scrutinies" signified for him an examination of the godparents' knowledge of the creed and the Lord's Prayer: "We thoroughly scrutinize the godfathers and godmothers, to see if they can sing the Lord's Prayer and the creed as we had advised." Scrutinies were becoming an opportunity to examine knowledge more than spiritual growth or moral behavior.

Over the next few centuries the scrutinies and exorcisms were gradually subsumed in the baptismal rite itself, as was beginning to happen in Pseudo-Dionysius.

References to scrutinies in the Roman-Germanic Pontifical (compiled 950-962) reflect several different stages of development. This document provided a special section of recommendations to translators about the equivalence of certain baptismal terms in Latin and Greek. It also explained what the unfamiliar words and expressions meant. For example, it considers scrutinies: "Next it must be asked what a scrutiny is. It is called a scrutiny from 'scrutinizing', because before baptism it is necessary to scrutinize the faith of the catechumen." It also retained the exorcisms and scrutinies of the later Gelasian source, but in two different forms. The first combined them as a prebaptismal liturgy, making one ceremony out of all the different parts. The second followed the basic format introduced by Ordo XI, stretching the scrutinies over a period of seven events.

The Roman Pontifical of the twelfth century retains only the rituals of Saturday morning before baptism; it offers no evidence of exorcisms or scrutinies during the preceding weeks. Hence its only exorcism served as a very immediate preparation for baptism.

The Pontifical of the Roman Curia (thirteenth century) similarly omitted independent scrutinies. It did, however, expand the order of becoming a catechumen, and included an exorcism and exsufflation at that time. Exorcisms based on those in the Gelasian followed. The rituals formerly associated with Saturday morning were now subsumed into the Easter Vigil. The Roman-Germanic Pontifical had offered this as an option for those children who were unable to be present on Saturday morning.

The Pontifical of Durand (thirteenth century) similarly omitted the separate scrutinies as well as the Saturday morning rituals. The minister following his order of service for the Easter Vigil would have to refer to other pontificals to locate the baptismal prayers; all exorcisms would have been conducted immediately prior to baptism. By this time, especially due to the number of infant baptisms, the church no longer needed a long period of preparation, nor the rituals that supported it. Scrutinies to examine the spiritual growth of catechumens had been suppressed.

In 1614 a postconciliar commission finished one of the last projects of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Ritual. It created two separate orders for baptism, one for children and one for adults. The one for children was shorter; the one for adults basically incorporated fragments of all the earlier prebaptismal and baptismal rites into one ceremony. Consequently, at the beginning of the celebration, exorcisms and exsufflation accompanied the opening ritual. A series of three solemn exorcisms followed, based on the scrutiny tradition of Ordo XI. The priest first exorcised the men, leading them through the Lord's Prayer, a signation, an exorcism, and handlaying. He performed that ritual three times. Then he did the same for the women, again three times. The adults were asked to renounce Satan, and then received an anointing. After they professed their faith in God, they were baptized. This ritual for adult baptism remained intact until the 1960s.

In 1962 the Sacred Congregation on Rites offered an optional order of adult initiation that divided the Roman Ritual into seven parts. The decision came as a result of requests from missionary countries that had restored a catechumenate in stages, but had no approved rituals to mark passage from one to the next. Aware that the Roman Ritual had compressed the rites for a catechumenate into one ritual, missionaries hoped the individual parts could be restored. The congregation agreed and published an alternate to, not a replacement for the order of adult initiation.

In publishing this new catechumenate, the congregation distinguished three separate occasions for the scrutiny exorcisms, but permitted the bishop to determine whether or not they could also be combined for simplicity, or reduced to one due to their repetitious nature.

When the Second Vatican Council was convened later that year, the fathers accepted the task of creating a revised order of adult initiation, which produced the scrutinies and exorcisms now in the 1972 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

So, the scrutinies have managed a long journey. They consistently served as a way of ritually assessing one's readiness for baptism, but what they investigated changed from one generation to the next. They scrutinized spiritual development, moral behavior, intellectual understanding, and even the intelligence of godparents. It is not clear what kind of behavior the minister expected to see during the ritual, but one's attentiveness, composure, and expression reveal a great deal about one's inner disposition. When supported by testimony from godparents and the community, as well as the minister's personal experience with the candidate, the scrutiny provided a ritual articulation of initiatory assessment.

The term "scrutiny" existed only in the Western church, although the church both east and west incorporated exorcisms into catechumenal formation. Exorcisms generally preceded scrutinies, but they also accompanied them, and even followed them as prebaptismal rituals. Exorcisms were consistently preoccupied with the notion of conversion, helping catechumens rebuke whatever allegiance they formerly held in order to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord. That conversion was strengthened by exsufflations, sealed with anointings, and affirmed by the presence of the community's leader, who served as its minister.

By the time of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council the scrutinies had been transformed into a series of exorcisms invoked within the baptismal liturgy, in Latin, where no real scrutinizing was expected.


The reform of the scrutinies restored their placement to the weeks preceding baptism. But it also altered their content. They basically retain their classic purpose, but even in their new shape, they are still easily misunderstood.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults explains it this way:

The scrutinies, which are solemnly celebrated on Sundays and are reinforced by an exorcism, are rites for self-searching and repentance and have above all a spiritual purpose. The scrutinies are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. These rites, therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all.

The instruction goes on to say that the elect should "progress in genuine self-knowledge through serious examination of their lives and true repentance." Three scrutinies are celebrated "in order to inspire in the elect a desire for purification and redemption by Christ. . . . From the first to the final scrutiny the elect should progress in their perception of sin and their desire for salvation."

By means of the exorcism, the elect "are freed from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil. They receive new strength in the midst of their spiritual journey and they open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Savior."

Therefore most of the "scrutinizing" of the elect's sincerity and behavior probably takes place outside the ritual, but the scrutiny brings the struggle for conversion to a ritual moment where it is acknowledged and where the elect may profit from the community's prayer.

The gospels of the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus are directly associated with scrutinies now. Although one may reasonably presume that this relationship existed in the past, it is inescapably clear in the reformed rite, given the permission to use the texts every year, and that the themes of the scriptures have been integrated into the scrutiny prayers themselves. The study group hoped that the three gospels would represent a progression of themes from personal sin (the Samaritan woman), to social sin (the people who reviled the man born blind), to the ultimate evil of death (Lazarus). Many who find the rites repetitive probably miss this too subtle progression.

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults has restored scrutinies to what the framers of the ritual called "their original place," on Sundays three, four, and five of lent. However, the exorcisms have undergone considerable change.

The revised order of initiation offers a wide selection of "minor exorcisms."

They draw the attention of the catechumens to the real nature of Christian life, the struggle between flesh and spirit, the importance of self-denial for reaching the blessedness of God's kingdom, and the unending need for God's help.

These minor exorcisms were created out of ancient texts and have been offered to priests, deacons, and catechists for use throughout the period of the catechumenate. In the past, exorcisms only pertained to the time of immediate preparation for baptism, the period now known as purification and enlightenment. So the placement of exorcisms prior to that period, although justified in a reading of John the Deacon, is new. The study group that compiled these texts for the Consilium of Vatican II offered them during the period of the catechumenate partially in response to objections they heard from those experimenting with the rites that the period of purification and enlightenment was top-heavy with rituals and the period of the catechumenate floundered without them. The minor exorcisms offered a way that catechists and clergy could offer special prayers for those in remote formation for baptism.

As a further concession, the ritual also permits anointing with the oil of catechumens to be administered during this same period. This was a weightier move because it changed the purpose of this anointing. Formerly, the anointing sealed the long series of exorcisms just prior to baptism. Now the anointing reinforces the exorcisms throughout the time of baptismal preparation. Missionaries experienced in the catechumenate recommended that the anointing would prove more beneficial to catechumens at the start of their preparation, not at its end. But this thinking altered the purpose of the oil from final sealing to interim strength. In keeping with tradition, the order of initiation still limits the ministry of anointing with the oil of catechumens to deacons and priests.

The revised order of initiation, while dividing up the parts of the Tridentine order of adult baptism, kept the renunciation of Satan with the profession of faith immediately before baptism. This follows the procedure in the Apostolic Tradition, with, of course, the exception of the anointing. The anointing that appeared in Apostolic Tradition after the renunciation had been moved now to an earlier occasion, and that permitted the renunciation and profession to stand in clearer relief with each other, furnishing a forceful case for the verification of conversion just prior to baptism.

A new option has affected this climactic renunciation of sin. The diocesan bishop may permit formularies "made more specific and detailed as circumstances might require." By naming the past the elect leave behind, such an adaptation should help drive home the kind of conversion that they have been seeking.

So the sequence of events in the revised rite differs from its predecessors. Minor exorcisms now accompany the period of the catechumenate. They are seen as ways of strengthening the catechumens in their struggle for conversion. Anointing with the oil of catechumens may be applied several times during this period as a means of supporting the conversion in progress. When the scrutinies are celebrated with their major exorcisms, they bring to a head in a public place the work of the minor exorcisms. They still, in effect, attempt to verify that the work of the exorcisms has taken place and that conversion is sincere. That conversion will be noted on Saturday morning by the recitation of the creed, but more vigorously in the moments immediately prior to baptism when the elect renounce sin publicly and profess their faith in God, Christ, and the Spirit.


Several related issues are raised by the revision of these rites and by their pastoral practice.

Most significant is the change introduced in the text of the exorcisms themselves. From at least the time of Ordo XI and the Gelasian, exorcisms had been presented as repeated imprecations leveled against the devil, using the form of direct address. Just as the presider offered prayers to God, so he also turned to redress Satan. These imprecations remained a part of the Roman rite all the way up to the current reform. In the mid-1960s, when the study group sent the experimental texts for the catechumenate to fifty different dioceses around the world, they included within the scrutinies another series of imprecations addressed to the devil. The feedback consistently criticized this decision. Formerly when these texts had been proclaimed in Latin, their full force remained largely unknown to those being baptized. Now, translated into the vernacular, they seemed inappropriate to modern sensibilities through their personification of evil and their implication that the unbaptized were somehow possessed. Besides, the structure of the entire scrutiny still seemed cumbersome, and pastoral ministers were hoping for some simplification. Consequently, the study group removed the imprecations from the final draft of the scrutinies and instead proposed the structure that now appears: intercessions for the elect, prayer to God the Father, handlaying, and prayer to Jesus Christ. The prayers are still directed to accomplish what exorcisms did; they still ask for conversion. But now instead of asking Satan to leave, they ask Jesus to take care of business. Satan still appears by name in the renunciation and in the text of some of the prayers. But he is never addressed. The exorcism texts in the scrutinies pray that the elect will be freed from the evil spirit and filled with the Holy Spirit. Imprecations have been replaced with deprecations.

All this raises the important philosophical question, "What is the nature of evil?" The scrutiny proposes either that evil should not be personified, or that one should not talk to it. Most likely, the change represents an aversion to overly personifying evil, especially as an entity in complete possession of the unbaptized. When most people think about "exorcism", they commonly think about an attack on personal demonic possession. They do not think about change of allegiance from one way of life to another. In its efforts to preserve the ancient language of "exorcism", the study group apparently conceded the ancient imprecations, in order to avoid the difficulties inherent in personifying evil.

But now exorcisms do not look like they used to. They lack the direct address to personified evil; even the renunciation before baptism is called "of sin," not "of Satan." But other rubrical and spoken texts do speak directly about Satan as a personified entity, including the renunciation itself. This ambivalence about how to imagine evil has led some to object that the scrutinies have been whittled down too much, and others still asking for some other word besides "exorcism". No one questions the presence of evil and sin. No one doubts the power of Christ to overcome it. But now this struggle is ritualized with language that strikes some as too weak, and others as too strong, while the texts try to affirm the most central belief in this discussion, that the most precise way to fight evil and sin is by confident prayer to Jesus Christ.

Another way of framing the scrutinies' approach to evil can be learned from comparing the revised order of baptism for infants with that of adults. Infant baptism, of course, foresees no catechumenal development. Baptism is offered to infants on the strength of the faith of their parents, godparents, and the community. In keeping with tradition, the preparatory rites in infant baptism simply borrow from elements of the catechumenate. The child's name is supplied, the forehead is signed, the breast is anointed, and parents and godparents renew their baptismal promises. The ritual even includes an exorcism in conjunction with the anointing. But since the child has experienced no personal sin, the exorcism does not deal with the rejection of a former way of life. Instead it treats original sin.

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. . . .

We now pray for these children who will have to face the world with its temptations, and fight the devil in all his cunning. Your Son died and rose again to save us. By his victory over sin and death, cleanse these children from the stain of original sin. Strengthen them with the grace of Christ, and watch over them at every step in life's journey.

The prayer presumes that baptism still moves someone from one way of life into another, but the former way of life is not complicated by false allegiance. Instead, it is more susceptible to evil because it is a life outside the body of Christ, away from intimate relationship with church, deprived of sacramental encounter. In this framework, original sin can be understood not so much as an inherited sin passed on genetically like hair color, but as a milieu apart from life in Christ against which baptism will bring freedom and cleansing. Comparing scrutinies for adults to this exorcism for children, what correlates is that there is some sin, some power of evil, for which one is not responsible. The exorcisms are trying to free the elect from that power. There is a kind of "devil made me do it" approach to the sense of evil in an exorcism. It is not so much directed against the sinful behavior of which one is guilty, but against the evil that tempts toward sinful behavior, an evil to which one is more susceptible outside the realm of the grace of Christ.

After baptism, of course, the Christian becomes more responsible for sinful behavior. Evil will still tempt, but Christians who have the benefit of community, sacraments, and divine presence should be better equipped to handle it. When they do not, they sin. Both personal sin and social sin come from a misuse of baptismal grace, which has forever freed the individual and the Christian society from original sin.

This is why the revised order of initiation provides neither exorcisms nor scrutinies for candidates. Those who were baptized in another ecclesial community and who seek the full communion of the Catholic Church may undergo an optional penitential rite on the second Sunday of Lent (if they are to be received at Easter), but the prayers take on a different flavor. They are prayers more for forgiveness than for exorcism.

Open the minds and hearts of these candidates to the presence of Christ in their lives. May they humbly acknowledge their sins and failings and be freed of whatever obstacles and falsehoods that keep them from adhering wholeheartedly to your kingdom. . . .

Lord Jesus, . . . pour out upon (these candidates) the power of your Spirit, that they may be fearless witnesses to your Gospel and one with us in the communion of love.

These prayers make no presumption that baptized candidates need freedom from the unrestrained power of evil. After all, they have been baptized. The nuance is significant in understanding that the church still regards exorcisms as prebaptismal territory. For a parish community to ask its baptized candidates to undergo the same scrutinies as the elect is to direct one of the most damaging insults in Christendom: It rebukes the very baptism for which the elect are preparing.

The scrutinies still suffer from misunderstood terminology, misapplied adaptations, and an ambivalent approach to the personification of evil. But they have something important in mind. Scrutinies are ceremonies during which the community, under the direction of its spiritual leader, verifies the spiritual progress made by its candidates for baptism. That progress is strengthened with prayer for the weakening of whatever forces are still drawing them away from life with Jesus Christ. Scrutinies also pray for the coming gift of the Holy Spirit, who will strengthen their resolve to enrich their lives by pledging their loyalty to Christ.


Given the chance, the scrutiny liturgies can be quite expressive. Those who wrote the reformed rites labored hard to reduce the scrutinies to a manageable size. Their prayers may seem repetitive, but they are trying to be insistent. Three scrutinies during Lent are still considerably fewer than the seven there used to be, or the forty exorcisms prior to that. They do require extra work for the homilist, but given the power of the gospels for these days and of the ritual texts, not much homily will be needed. A printed or spoken explanation of the procedures may help the assembly’s participation.

The ritual suggests several important points: Scrutinies are for the elect. It is the elect who bow their heads or kneel while the assembly stands to intercede for them. A song following the prayer to Christ may help the assembly to affirm the proceedings. The celebration of all three scrutinies helps the elect on their journey toward baptism, even as it reminds the assembly of the season's penitential spirit, which they too are called to embrace.

By observing the ritual with reverent hope, a parish community may find the scrutinies expressive enough, if these rites have been supported with minor exorcisms during the catechumenate, with anointings, with conversation about spiritual growth, and with the community's assistance for overcoming any resistance to moral change. Cast in their proper light, scrutinies need not appear a rude way to welcome new Christians, but a caring way which affirms their spiritual struggle and affords them the support of the entire community in the weeks before their public commitment to Christ.

Ultimately, scrutinies are about conversion. They are about leaving behind one way of life and taking up another. A well-prepared celebration of all three Sundays will clear the path toward the font of rebirth.


This article first appeared in Liturgical Ministry 8 (Spring, 1999):68-77.

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