The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century

The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century

by Tracy Wilkinson

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* How the Vatican's Office of Exorcism drives out demons and battles Satanic evil in today's world

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780759518377
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 02/21/2007
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 705,490
File size: 424 KB

About the Author

Tracy Wilkinson is the Rome bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Shelly Frasier has recorded over fifty audiobooks. She can be heard narrating such classics as Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

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The Vatican's Exorcists

Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century

Chapter One


From its very first days, the Roman Catholic Church has formally sanctioned exorcisms with enthusiasm that has varied through the centuries-sometimes promoting the ritual overtly, and during other periods, appearing to be embarrassed by it. Jesus Christ performed exorcisms more than 2,000 years ago, according to the Bible, as did his more recent vicar, Pope John Paul II. Believers see the exorcism as a major battle of wills between God and the superior forces of good on one side and evil on the other.

An exorcism is a ritual in which prayer is used to banish the devil, demons, or satanic spirits from a person or place. It is most familiar to Americans through popular culture, through movies like the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty's novel, and its sequels and various knockoffs. Most Americans probably associate the ceremonial flailing and screaming in darkened rooms amid chanting and bizarre, supernatural antics with rogue clerics or Holy Roller evangelists.

In fact, the procedure is accepted, sanctioned, and performed selectively, but far more commonly than one would expect, as part of Catholic doctrine and especially in Roman Catholic Italy. Many Italian priests and devout Catholics believe in the power of a force known as the devil or demons to vex, possess, and lead astray otherwise normal people. And they believe in the power of prayer to cast him (or it or them) aside. Exorcism comes from the Greek word for oath. An exorcism can be as simple as a prayer, a blessing; or, more rarely, it can be a more dramatic, sometimes violent ritual. It remains, nevertheless, controversial, a phenomenon that is mysterious and anachronistic to the outside world, and one that has many detractors within the Church as well.

No priest has done more to push exorcism into the mainstream than Rome's Father Gabriele Amorth, arguably modern day's most famous exorcist. With Amorth as a starting point of reference, this book will examine the rite of exorcism in detail, its history, its decline, and its current revival. Yes, revival. The number of people performing and seeking exorcisms has grown significantly in Italy. We will examine the reasons for this, which range from the kind of promotional work Amorth has done to the endorsement of two popes, a political climate that personifies evil, and the rampant fears of a population increasingly alienated from its moral foundations.

A debate also persists within the Rome-based Church itself. Priests disagree on how to interpret and analyze the presence of evil and the nature of the devil in the world today. Exorcists disagree on style, conditions, and some of the very definitions that underpin their work. And the Church hierarchy, while defending the necessity and discreet appropriateness of exorcism, continues to harbor deep misgivings over the way it is sometimes practiced. Father Amorth and his very public discussion of exorcism drive some elements of the top Vatican leadership to distraction; they disapprove of his showmanship tendencies. Yet there is no centralized oversight: exorcists report to their bishops, and the amount of autonomy an exorcist has can vary from diocese to diocese. Many Church officials prefer to see this as a fringe issue, noting that those who perform exorcisms are a tiny fraction of the clergy. These priests and other Vatican officials cannot say demonic possession is an impossibility because it is contained in Church dogma. But they fear-with justification-that this uncomfortable topic will be misinterpreted and sensationalized. They would rather it not be highlighted at all, in deference to more positive, life-affirming aspects of the religion.

Evolving thought and concern over exaggeration has prompted the Vatican to slightly change the rules governing exorcism for the first time in several hundred years, in an effort to give a nod to advances in the understanding of medical science and to prevent abuse. We will examine the generational divide within the growing ranks of Italy's exorcists. The new crop, many of them inspired by Amorth, grapples with concerns about when exorcism is appropriate and whether it might do more harm than good in cases when it is not. Among these is Father Francois-Marie Dermine, the exorcist of Ancona, who thinks perhaps priests have failed in listening to their parishioners. And Father Gabriele Nanni, who manages to balance piety, fundamentalism, and fervent belief in the devil with a scholarly analysis of faith. Members of the older generation, including Amorth and Andrea Gemma, "the only bishop exorcist," take a more casual, almost cavalier attitude and chafe at the new rules and the on-again, off-again efforts by the Vatican to rein them in.

As conversations with these men reveal, the work of the exorcist is quite delicate, and it remains an unusual calling. Even in Italy, where more people than anywhere else are willing to assume the mantle, the Church says there is a shortage of exorcists who can attend to the thousands of Italians who seek this kind of help. We will look at the somewhat clouded perspective of patients who have spent years with exorcists and also the question of why so many patients are women.

It is also important that the scientific community weigh in, and the attitude there is not as monolithic as one might expect. Certainly many psychologists and medical doctors rail against this practice as primitive and archaic. They challenge the notion of demonic possession in its very essence and say most characteristics displayed by the afflicted can be attributed to hysteria, unconscious role-playing, and high suggestibility on the part of patients. Exorcisms, contend the critics, are a hoax; the procedure is downright dangerous. Failure to discern serious illness, and instead, attributing it to the work of the devil, has led to death in a small number of exorcisms over the years, most notably in the United States and other parts of Europe. And yet there are men and women of science, particularly in Roman Catholic Italy, who are more accepting of the possibility of demonic possession, however rare it might be, and who see a role for prayer and the exorcist. "Science can't explain everything," says Salvatore di Salvo, a psychiatrist in the northern city of Turin.

I have approached this topic as a journalist, reserving my own analysis for specific moments and instead allowing exorcists and their patients to describe at length the phenomenon as they see it. I attended Caterina's exorcism and spent considerable time with her in her day-to-day life. I was allowed to listen to another exorcism that I describe later in the book. With two invaluable colleagues, Maria de Cristofaro and Livia Borghese, I conducted dozens of interviews with priests, psychologists, and historians. I do not attempt to judge the exorcists or their patients, or the Roman Catholic Church. However, the use of exorcisms and, more important, the growing number of Italians who think they need them raise troubling questions about society, organized religion, and mental health, questions that ultimately must be confronted.

Exorcism would seem in every way to conflict with the modern secular world, a world that is both fascinated and repelled by the phenomenon. It also generates conflict within the Church and even among those who practice it.

In the Blatty novel The Exorcist, the desperate mother Chris MacNeil seeks out Jesuit Father Damien Karras, who is also a psychiatrist, and asks him how she can find someone to perform an exorcism for a victim who she says is possessed. Chris has not yet revealed to Karras that the victim is her daughter. The Jesuit, an intellectual, is flabbergasted and responds dismissively, "Well, first you'd have to put him in a time machine and get him back to the sixteenth century."

In fact, they had only to come to Italy.


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