The Return of the Exorcists

With papal recognition of an international group of exorcists comes a renewed interest in their ministry and role in the pastoral work of the Church.

“These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues, they will pick up snakes in their hands and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.” (Mark 16:17-20)                         

Today exorcists are known more for how they are portrayed in movies than for their actual ministry. In 1991, there were only 12 of them banding together here in Italy. Since then, their association has become international, their ranks have multiplied, and the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) now numbers some 300 members from 30 different countries. Bishops, generally speaking, have become more attentive.

Pope Francis, from the outset of his pontificate, has spoken frequently and explicitly about spiritual warfare, depicting the spiritual life as a struggle against the devil and taking every opportunity to warn the faithful to be constantly on their guard against the wiles of Satan. “The devil also exists in the 21st century,” the Holy Father stated a year ago, “and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him.”

In June 2014 the Church’s exorcists—arguably the most isolated category of clerics, saddled with the most thankless ministry—received official recognition by the Holy See, which conferred on the International Association of Exorcists the status of a pontifical entity.

“The letter from the Congregation for the Clergy was signed on June 13th, the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua,” said Father Francesco Bamonte, president of the IAE, “but it reached my hands on the 28th, the anniversary of the second apparition in Fatima and the feast day of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Father Bamonte belongs to the order of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and, like his fellow exorcists, attaches great importance to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, associated in Scripture with her Son’s struggle against the Evil One. “At the very moment that I opened the envelope and started reading it out loud to the others who were with me,” he said, “the 12 o’clock noon bells started pealing, doubling our joyful emotion of the moment and bringing home to us a sense of Mary’s powerful intercession.”

Last October the 12th bi-annual International Convention of Exorcists hosted 285 participants from five continents; 11 European countries were represented (the majority were Italians, along with 16 Lithuanians, 15 Englishmen, 10 Frenchmen, and smaller groups from Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Denmark, and Sweden), as well as the United States (with three participants), Latin America (12 participants), Africa (four participants), and Asia (one participant each from South Korea and the Philippines).

The number of licensed exorcists in the world is much higher than the number that convened in Rome, but by all accounts it is still quite small. The highest number is in Italy, which boasts about 250 exorcists, followed by Poland, with about 120, and France, with about 100.

So what do hundreds of exorcists do when they meet together? These conferences, closed to outside observers, are dedicated to fellowship and sharing experiences, reflections, and proposals, but they center on round-the-clock prayer: morning lauds, Mass, the Rosary, Eucharistic adoration, vespers. “Our task is to create the circumstances in which seasoned exorcists can give others the benefit of their experience, in order to inform and train more and younger exorcists in the world,” said Dr. Valter Cascioli, a layman, psychiatrist, and spokesman for the IAE. “To do this we also try to create an awareness of the need in the entire Church. At times we have been confronted by skepticism, but today we have the support of our pastors. Our meeting last year received messages of well-wishing from, among others, the Holy Father, from Cardinal Vallini, the Pope’s vicar for the Diocese of Rome, and from the cardinal of Seoul.”

At the 2014 convention, it was an apostolic blessing from Pope Francis that set the tone. Delivered by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, it directly referenced Christ’s injunction to his disciples to cast out demons (Mk 10:8), and encouraged the gathered exorcists “to carry out their particular ministry manifesting the love and embrace of the Church to those who suffer because of the Evil One.” This directed the focus of their gathering on the theme of love and compassion: working to understand how to better alleviate the pain of those suffering from a diabolical vexation or possession.

World-renowned exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, founder of the IAE, made an appearance at the start of the conference, addressing the participants with his customary joviality and pointing out that he, at 90 years old, is living proof that you can live a long and fruitful life even if you take on the devil.

The IAE celebrated the pontifical recognition of their group by adopting an official hymn. Composed by Father Alfonso Santoriello and based on the words of Psalm 68, it encourages the “children of the light” to carry on their spiritual battle against the “partes adversae,” repeating the war cry that Moses and the chosen people raised up every time they carried the Ark of the Covenant into the desert (Num 10:35).

The IAE is also working on the biographies of intercessors and potential patron saints of their ministry. One is well-known Servant of God Candido Amantini (1914-92), a Passionist priest who for 36 years was chief exorcist in Rome, and who mentored Father Amorth. Another is Blessed Francisco Palau (1811-72), a 19th-century Spanish Carmelite priest who struggled to revive the ministry of exorcism and reclaim for it the central position it had held within the pastoral activity of the Church before the Enlightenment era.

In the universal Church, up until the fourth century, exorcisms were a part of normal pastoral work. This is still the case in the Orthodox Churches but in the West—where there has always been a strong tendency to regulate everything, partly due to the heritage of Roman law—exorcisms began to be done as a part of an official ceremony.  By the year 416 Pope Innocent had stipulated that exorcisms could be administered only with a bishop’s authorization. This was intended to protect the faithful from being taken in by magicians or frauds

Notwithstanding these cautionary restrictions, for more than a thousand years, up until the 12th century, priests in both the East and West carried out their exorcisms on a full and peaceful scale. Exorcists were usually readily available, so that troubled souls had no difficulty in finding help. Elder exorcists schooled younger priests by having them assist at exorcisms.

The 13th century marked the start the age of “witch hunts”; people suffering from demonic harassment or possession were sometimes persecuted and could even end up being burned at the stake. In an essay on the ministry of exorcisms carried out in the Church (“L’esorcismo come ministero esercitato nella Chiesa”, Vita Pastorale, January 1998), Father Amorth described those centuries as characterized by “the collapse of all pastoral and juridical justice.” A turning point came in 1252, when Pope Innocent IV authorized the torture of heretics. An indicator of the contemporary climate of opinion can be seen in John XXII’s decision, in 1326, to include witches in the Inquisition. According to Father Amorth, worse came to worst from about 1560 to 1630, when many problems were seen in the light of the demonic (although “witch hunts” involved Protestant nations more often than Catholic ones).

There ensued a reaction against the sometimes violent and deadly methods of the Inquisition. Torture was called off in the 18th century, but exorcisms were not reinstated within the realm of normal Church activity. On the contrary, there was a growing denial of the very existence of the devil and demonic activity. People increasingly referred to a generic evil, rather than to the Evil One, who thus came to be seen no longer as a person, but rather as a metaphor or an abstract concept. Logically, the next step was doing away with exorcisms altogether.

Exorcists gradually began to disappear from the Catholic world, despite the fact that many saints are recorded as having freed people who were possessed. From the third century up until 1972, the order of exorcist was one of four minor orders conferred upon all men preparing to be ordained as Catholic priests. “Now, however, in many dioceses the ministry of exorcism has died out,” confirms Father Duarte Sousa Lara, a diocesan priest from Portugal who served his apprenticeship as an exorcist with Father Amorth in Rome. “And there are priests who simply don’t believe that the devil even exists; they prefer to consult a pseudo-science such as parapsychology, rather than having recourse to the faith handed down over the centuries.”

Father Duarte traces the roots of this unbelief back to the 18th century, when scientific development engendered an absolute faith in the capacity of human reason to know all truth, without need of divine revelation. “This extreme view of rationality,” he points out, “has unfortunately spread even to some seminaries, many of which include in their curricula the heresies of German Evangelical theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who taught that ‘now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil.’”

“Today, in this age of neopaganism, the need [for exorcists] is ever greater,” says Father Duarte. “But to spread this ministry we need to attract the attention of more young priests. Sometimes bishops want to appoint someone but they can’t find anyone willing. Other times there are those who are willing but don’t get appointed.”

Until recently there have been only a few exorcists in the United States, but the bishops are currently having dozens of priests schooled in this ministry at specialized centers. In the Protestant world there is no dearth of exorcists, especially among Evangelical and Pentecostal communities. In some Catholic circles there are those—priests and even, in some situations, lay people—who recite prayers of deliverance not simply for the victim of demonic activity but directly rebuking an evil spirit.

All of this is aimed at the restoration of health and spiritual life, so that those who have suffered from oppression and possession can be restored to full communion. “Even the demonic powers, which are hostile to man, stand powerless before the intimate union of love that exists between Jesus and whoever receives him in faith,” said Pope Francis in a November 2013 homily. “This reality of the faithful love that God has for each one of us helps us to face life’s daily journey, which sometimes passes quickly and at other times is slow and laborious, with serenity and strength.”

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About Alessandra Nucci 29 Articles
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.

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