Did Mother Teresa Need an Exorcist?

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Mother Teresa

Itís a story thatís sure to leave heads spinning: Wednesday morning, CNN reported that Mother Teresa was the subject of an exorcism during her later years. According to the report, Henry DíSouza, the Archbishop of Calcutta, observed the late nun in an "extremely agitated" state while she was hospitalized for cardiac problems. She would appear perfectly placid during the day, then toss and turn at night, pulling off the monitoring wires that were attached to her arms.

DíSouza diagnosed Mother Teresa as possessed by the devil. The solution? To have the rite of exorcism performed. The nun reportedly agreed, and the Archbishop called in a "holy man" who commanded the evil spirits to leave the elderly womanís body. After the exorcism, DíSouza says, Mother Teresa "slept like a baby."

Why would Satan choose to possess one of the 20th centuryís most pious and best-loved figures? Was an actual exorcism actually performed over Mother Teresaís bed? Does this story hurt the nunís bid for sainthood? In hopes of finding some answers, TIME.com spoke with Michael W. Cuneo, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University and author of the new book "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty."

TIME.com: If you believe this story, it seems that this exorcism was ordered in pretty hurried circumstances. Isnít there a specific set of conditions that need to be met before anyone conducts an exorcism?

Michael CuneoIn theory, yes. Thatís the way itís supposed to go.

The official Roman Catholic position is that youíre supposed to approach an exorcism with a great deal of skepticism. Before ordering an exorcism, a priest is required to conduct a thorough review, eliminate every other possibility for the subjectís behavior — including psychopathologic and organic disorders. Even once youíve ruled this out, you rule it out again. One of the weirdest things about this story, if the article is correct, is that there was no evaluation on the part of the Archbishop. The order for the exorcism was just off the cuff. Our biggest handicap in analyzing this story, of course, is that we donít know how trustworthy the article and its sources are. So we have to approach all of this with some skepticism.

Letís assume this is a true account, and Mother Teresa was in fact the subject of an exorcism. Does this obstruct Mother Teresaís path to sainthood?

I canít imagine this would hurt or prejudice the campaign to have Mother Teresa declared a saint. If anything, the report will enhance her stature. Her advocates and defenders will say this is all the more proof of her piety — after all, Satan and his minions are often eager to attack the truly holy.

Beyond that, there is also a tradition here. According to Roman Catholic lore, holy men and women are often tested somewhere down the line. For example, Jesus Christ was supposedly assailed by demons during his earthly ministry.

Is it possible that this so-called "exorcism" was actually part of another rite, like a prayer for the sick?

Thatís what I initially thought when I read this story, because there is a prayer called the rite of deliverance that is a kind of informal exorcism, and is often performed at baptisms and over the bed of the dying. But if you take the story at face value, the phraseology that DíSouza uses, like "in the name of the church, I command you," seems to indicate this was a fairly formal procedure. But again, we donít know exactly what happened — we have to take DíSouzaís word for it.