ELEGY FOR AN EXORCIST
(In Memoriam: Father Alphonsus Trabold (1925-2005)
(April 2, 2006)
It’s been an exact year since he left us. How many knew who we had so long or noticed his passing two days after that of a beloved Pope? It’s like he timed things, this self-effacing man, so he could slip off without us catching it. Even I missed him in the hurry, and the travel, and the shock of it all. It’s like I couldn’t sum up what I needed to say last April in time to get something like this ready. But not so fast, Father.
Western New York has lost one of its most intriguing citizens, and the world one of its luminaries in a rare and arcane study. You’d never guess by looking him what a star he was, the slight, soft-spoken professor and friar Father Alphonsus Trabold (1925-2005). Father Alphonsus will surely be remembered by those who knew him personally for his human, everyday work as a teacher, counselor and priest. But the Rochester-born “Father Al,” as he liked to be called, was known around the world for a more dramatic specialty. He was the exorcist of Western New York.
Demonic possession may strike us as something out of the Middle Ages or Gothic fiction and film. It is far from the everyday work of the Church; but on those rare occasions that someone calls for help with a problem that could be supernatural, someone is needed to sort things out, to tell the ordinary from the psychic, and the ordinarily psychic from what is... serious. Sometimes a priest is needed to deal with the unholy. Father Alphonsus was ready.
You’d think a man on call as the expeller of demons would be an intimidating presence, arrogant, and even sinister. Father Alphonsus was unassuming, and gentle. He used the most direct words, and the fewest of them, in his teaching. There was no mumbo-jumbo about him, and nothing medieval, either, except maybe those Franciscan robes. Among those he counseled were people who thought they were targeted by disembodied entities. When his intercession was needed he worked through short, simple prayers and the force of some holy current that, I have no doubt, ran through him to a rare degree.
We live in a material world. Physical realities are as common and solid as the ground beneath us. Psychic events have to be considered merely as occasions. An immaterial component - a soul or spirit - to the human being is suggested, but far from proved. It’s hard for objective thinkers – I try to be one of them - to have complete belief. Doubt melted away when you were with Father Alphonsus. He didn’t just believe; he knew. In his presence, and a long time afterward, you knew, too. It was impressive. He wasn’t a proselytizer. He convinced with nothing but his own belief. But Father Alphonsus was a man of more than just faith; he was a man of hard, clear thought - and experience. He had witnessed psychic phenomena, and he had studied it. He was an academic defender of the spirit – a rare breed in the 21st century.
There’s an explosion these days of interest in the paranormal. When the media profile potentially psychic cases - miracles, ghosts, ESP - they often interview amateur local advocates and bring in eloquent Ph. D. doubters to give us the other side. Balance is good, of course; but the real opposite of educated skepticism is educated advocacy. Father Alphonsus was one of the standard-bearers.
His viewpoint may have been underfunded and overlooked, but Father Alphonsus was hardly obscure. In fact, he was a legend in his personal life for almost half a century at St. Bonaventure. Countless graduates remember "Spooks," as they call it, his lively course on parapsychology and religion. A popular lecturer often interviewed by upstate papers and radio, Father Alphonsus had his moments on the national stage. He appeared as an expert on psychic phenomena on major-network television in the mid-1970s, a time when exorcism, Satanic cults, and possession were hot topics. In the rarified circles of psychical research his prominence never wavered. Little wonder. His perspective - and his experience - were utterly unique.
Father Alphonsus knew the most sensitive cases in Church history and understood Church philosophy. He also knew parapsychology. He knew famous cases and test results and could look at things like that sort of scientist. As an official field reporter for the Psychical Research Foundation he saw many potentially psychic cases firsthand. Others were brought to him by the Church, and many came to him on their own. Father Alphonsus was a magnet for people whose griefs, they thought, were supernatural.
The subject of demonic possession - one of the few in which Church and paranormal overlap - is of major popular interest. Someone who knew it from the inside could have made shock waves by telling his tales. Father Alphonsus would not.
At our first meeting I saw that I was going to hear no catalog of sensational cases. I admit I was hoping for them. Until I understood things better it seemed like they would make a hell of a book - one I’ll never write, and that Father Al never would have, either. The Church usually keeps even old cases of suspected possession private, and they’re personal to families, even after things settle. Not hard to see why. Your kid may want be a lawyer someday; it wouldn’t help his chances at Cornell if people find out he was channeling for Azathoth at 13.
Father Alphonsus never betrayed his confidences. After our first talk he called me to be sure I knew nothing he’d said was for the record. We’d spoken in only general terms, but I still had plenty to write, and the situation put me out. If he hadn’t heard me tell him I was writing an article, what had he thought I was doing with the laptop all the time we’d spoken? I’d worked for days on that piece. At the time I thought he was still in the Middle Ages, certainly having no more of an understanding of journalism than someone from 1200. Still, I didn’t give a thought to publishing it against his wishes. I gained so much more in the long run by his trust.
As a scholar and as a person, Father Alphonsus was one of the “authentics.” Some who’d like to be thought more authentic themselves gravitate to people like this, and try to get a bigger piece of them.
In the 1970s Father Alphonsus was summoned to an alarming situation. A husband-and-wife team of traveling “psychic investigators” from New England had gotten out of their depth trying to “deliver” a fragile young girl. Father Al calmed things down, but the couple started promoting themselves as his routine collaborators, even fellow-exorcists, and getting themselves and others into more trouble. Father Alphonsus said of these two the worst I think he could say of anyone: “I had to ask them to stop mentioning my name.” I wonder if they’ll start using his name again now. Father Al always thought he’d been set up.
Buffalo isn’t just the nucleus of a region known for spiritual energy; it’s also the capitol of skepticism, home of our world-famous CSICOPS - the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Father Al agreed with them on so many points. He readily acknowledged the presence of suggestion, delusion and fakery in the world. “Only when all material factors are ruled out should you begin to consider paranormal causes,” he said. His only quibble with the Skeptics was over that fraction of cases that aren’t quite so clear. “They’re limited by what they consider possible,” he told me once. Theirs was just a different way of seeing the same world.
Father Alphonsus consulted on many celebrated cases, and found many - like that of the “Amityville Horror” - lacking. He had his doubts even about the famous haunting of Devereaux Hall on his own St. Bonaventure campus. One explosive mid-1970s Cattaraugus County case - of the Dandy/Miller family at Hinsdale - has been popularized as one of actual possession. Father Alphonsus disagreed and declined the exorcism service. As a matter of fact, he never encountered what he judged to be an outright case of possession in all his years of Western New York.
But make no mistake: he believed, in the occasional validity of psychic phenomena, in a Source - he gave it a name - of love at the root of this world, in a better one to come, and in an evil something at work among us, with a million subtle agents who only declare themselves when overcome. I wish I had asked him more directly than I ever did if he personified this power and gave it a single name.
And he was good. I never met anyone who knew him who didn’t sense it, often instantly. Selfishness and self-consciousness had evaporated from him, distilling his personality into nothing but concern for others. Father Alphonsus spent endless, patient hours counseling people with needs of all types, even those he thought were mistaken in believing their troubles came from beyond this world. “I’ll pray for you,” he said to me once when I turned to him for advice, and things looked instantly brighter. It felt like I had someone pulling for me whose influence might just reach up and out of this world and tug the ear of the universe. I interviewed him for a documentary in 2003 (The Phantom Tour) and, as we parted, the crew from Full Circle Studios were so overcome with feeling for him that they rushed in to embrace him. I had never seen anything like it. I’d worked with them for weeks, and they’d been classic wise guys. Still are.
By this time in 2004 Father Alphonsus was through traveling for talks. He could never plan anything too far ahead any more. He had good days and bad ones. That fall we agreed to aim for a dinner over the winter, but things got busy for me, and that last one never happened. I advise all who have aging friends not to wait.
The Church takes a beating in some quarters these days because of a few bad priests and some shortsighted stonewalling that might have worked in the Middle Ages. Maybe the memory of a revered Pope will tone the process down. Maybe those who hate the Church can use its current crisis to deal it a toppling blow. That would be a loss. There are many fine people in the Church, men and women who want nothing but good for others. Father Alphonsus was one of them. I remember Chaucer’s line about his loyal Parson: “I think there never was a better priest.” I think of Pope John Paul’s reported last words - something like, “All my life I have sought you, and now you have come to me” - and wonder if, in his last moments, Father Alphonsus might have seen gathering for him the miraculous presences he had tried so long to understand.
“Requiescat...” they’ve wished him in the formal way: “Rest in peace.” But peace he always had. Rest I wish him, too, but just a short one, and with sunny dreams that soothe all memories of the body’s wrack. I wish new learning for that active mind, and students again for the lifelong teacher. Goodbye, Father. You may not have wanted this, but it’s the only time I went against you. Look in the heart to judge. And there’s work to do! Be there, as you were here, for the troubled, for the newly-crossed.