The Dispatch

Here’s what real exorcists are saying about Russell Crowe’s Vatican exorcist movie

March 24, 2023 Catholic News Agency 3
Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) and Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) in Screen Gems’ The Pope’s Exorcist. / Jonathan Hession © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Denver, Colo., Mar 24, 2023 / 09:56 am (CNA).

The trailer of the upcoming Russell Crowe movie “The Pope’s Exorcist” indicates that the film might not do justice to the Italian exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth or the rite of exorcism as practiced in the Catholic Church, according to an exorcist organization Amorth himself helped to found.

The International Association of Exorcists on March 7 voiced concern that the film seems to fall under the category of “splatter cinema,” which it calls a “sub-genre of horror.”

The Vatican, the statement said, is filmed with a high-contrast “chiaroscuro” effect seen in film noir.

This gives the film a “‘Da Vinci Code’ effect to instill in the public the usual doubt: Who is the real enemy? The devil or ecclesiastical ‘power’?” the exorcists’ association said.

While special effects are “inevitable” in every film about demonic possession, “everything is exaggerated, with striking physical and verbal manifestations, typical of horror films,” the group said.

“This way of narrating Don Amorth’s experience as an exorcist, in addition to being contrary to historical reality, distorts and falsifies what is truly lived and experienced during the exorcism of truly possessed people,” said the association, which claims more than 800 exorcist members and more than 120 auxiliary members worldwide.

“In addition, it is offensive with regard to the state of suffering in which those who are victims of an extraordinary action of the devil find themselves,” the group’s statement added. The statement responded to the release of the movie trailer and promised a more in-depth response to the film’s April 14 theatrical release.

Father Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of Rome, speaks to CNA on May 22, 2013.  Steven Driscoll/CNA
Father Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of Rome, speaks to CNA on May 22, 2013. Steven Driscoll/CNA

Amorth, who died at age 91 in 2016, said he performed an estimated 100,000 exorcisms during his life. He was perhaps the world’s best-known exorcist and the author of many books, including “An Exorcist Tells His Story,” reportedly an inspiration for the upcoming movie.

Several of Amorth’s books are carried by the U.S. publisher Sophia Institute Press. The publisher’s newly released book “The Pope’s Exorcist: 101 Questions About Fr. Gabriele Amorth” is an interview in which the priest addresses many topics ranging from prayer to pop music.

Michael Lichens, editor and spokesperson at Sophia Institute Press, voiced some agreement with the exorcist group.

“The International Association of Exorcists is right to be concerned and I’m thankful for their words,” Lichens told CNA. “My hope is that audiences will remember that Father Amorth is a real person with a great legacy and perhaps a few moviegoers will look up an interview or pick up his books.”

“This was a man who included St. Padre Pio and Blessed Giacomo Alberione as mentors, as well as Servant of God Candido Amantini, who was his teacher for the ministry of exorcism,” he said. “Father Amorth fought as a partisan as a young man and grew to fight greater evil as an exorcist. His life is an inspiration and I know that his work and words will still reach many.”

Amorth was born in Modena, Italy, on May 1, 1925. In wartime Italy, he was a soldier with the underground anti-fascist partisans. He was ordained a priest in 1951. He did not become an exorcist until 1986, when Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, named him the diocesan exorcist.

The priest was frequently in the news for his comments on the subject of demonic forces. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in 2000, he said: “I speak with the devil every day. I talk to him in Latin. He answers in Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in, day out, for 14 years.”

The movie “The Pope’s Exorcist” claims to be “inspired by the actual files of the Vatican’s chief exorcist.” The Sony Pictures movie stars the New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe as Amorth. Crowe’s character wears a gray beard and speaks English with a noticeable accent.

“The majority of cases do not require an exorcism,” the Amorth character says in the movie’s first trailer. A cardinal explains that Crowe’s character recommends 98% of people who seek an exorcism to doctors and psychiatrists instead.

“The other 2%… I call it… evil,” Crowe adds.

The plot appears to concern Amorth’s encounter with a particular demon. Crowe’s character suggests the Church “has fought this demon before” but covered it up.

“We need to find out why,” he says.

The trailer shows short dramatic scenes of exorcism, including a confrontation between Amorth and a girl apparently suffering demonic possession.

The International Association of Exorcists said such a representation makes exorcism become “a spectacle aimed at inspiring strong and unhealthy emotions, thanks to a gloomy scenography, with sound effects such as to inspire only anxiety, restlessness, and fear in the viewer.”

“The end result is to instill the conviction that exorcism is an abnormal, monstrous, and frightening phenomenon, whose only protagonist is the devil, whose violent reactions can be faced with great difficulty,” said the exorcist group. “This is the exact opposite of what occurs in the context of exorcism celebrated in the Catholic Church in obedience to the directives imparted by it.”

CNA sought comment from Sony Pictures and “The Pope’s Exorcist” executive producer Father Edward Siebert, SJ, but did not receive a response by publication.

Amorth co-founded the International Association of Exorcists with Father René Laurentin in 1994. In 2014 the Catholic Church recognized the group as a Private Association of the Faithful.

The association trains exorcists and promotes their incorporation into local communities and normal pastoral care. It also aims to promote “correct knowledge” about exorcism ministry and collaboration with medical and psychiatric experts who have competence in spirituality.

Exorcism is considered a sacramental, not a sacrament, of the Church. It is a liturgical rite that only a priest can perform.

Hollywood made the topic a focus most famously in the 1973 movie “The Exorcist,” based on the novel by William Peter Blatty.

“Most movies about Catholicism and spiritual warfare sensationalize,” Lichens of Sophia Institute Press told CNA. “Sensationalism and terror sell tickets. As a fan of horror movies, I can understand and even appreciate that. As a Catholic who has studied Father Amorth, though, I think such sensationalism distorts the important work of exorcism.”

“On the other hand, ‘The Exorcist’ made the wider public more curious about this overlooked ministry. That is a good thing that came out, despite other reservations and concerns,” he continued. “Still, I would love it if a screenwriter and director spoke to exorcists and tried to show the often-quotidian parts of the ministry.”

An unhealthy curiosity can be a problem, Lichens said.

“When I work as a spokesperson for Amorth’s books, I am always concerned about inspiring curiosity about the demonic,” he told CNA. “As Christians, we know we have nothing to fear from the demonic but curiosity might lead some to want to seek out the supernatural or the demonic. Father Amorth has dozens of stories of people who found themselves afflicted after party game seances.”

Lichens encouraged those who are curious to read more of Amorth’s writings, some of which are excerpted on the Catholic Exchange website. Sophia Institute Press has published “Diary of an American Exorcist” by Monsignor Stephen Rosetti and “The Exorcism Files” by the American lay Catholic Adam Blai.

“First and foremost, Father Amorth was involved in a healing ministry,” Lichens said. “Like other exorcists, his work often involved doctors in physical and mental health because the goal is to bring healing and hope to the potentially afflicted.”

“Those of us who read Amorth might have been excited to read firsthand accounts of spiritual warfare, but readers quickly see a man whose heart was always full of love for those who sought his help,” he added.

The International Association of Exorcists, for its part, praised the 2016 documentary “Deliver Us,” saying this shows “what exorcism really is in the Catholic Church and “the authentic traits of a Catholic exorcist.” It shows exorcism as “a most joyful event,” in their view, because through experiencing “the presence and action of Christ the Lord and of the Communion of the Saints,” those who are “tormented by the extraordinary action of the devil gradually find liberation and peace.”

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No Picture
News Briefs

New graphic novels star Catholic exorcists battling demons for souls

March 20, 2022 Catholic News Agency 2
Douglas Ernst’s “Soulfinder” series of graphic novels follows the adventures of combat vets-turned-exorcists. / ICONIC Comics

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Mar 20, 2022 / 05:00 am (CNA).

Father Patrick Retter kept his wits about him as he faced the giant, red-eyed cobra slithering out of the possessed woman’s mouth. 

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti,” he chanted the Sign of the Cross in Latin, as he thrust a bottle of holy water at the demon.

The woman bit his hand with her teeth — emitting a loud crunch — but the priest kept going. Clutching his wooden cross, he declared, “I cast you and every satanic specter out — in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ! It is he who commands you.”

So begins one of the many action-packed scenes in the “Soulfinder” graphic novel series about a fictional “special forces of exorcists” within the Catholic Church.

“‘Soulfinder’ is about a major order of combat veteran exorcists who are recruited to engage in spiritual warfare with a demon called Blackfire until the end of time,” Douglas Ernst, the writer and creator of the series told CNA.

The 42-year-old writer began the series to fill a void in today’s comic-book world — and in the culture.

“The heroes that I grew up reading are often unrecognizable because the creators at Marvel and DC are activists posing as serious storytellers,” he explained. “I created ‘Soulfinder’ because I wanted to give people solid stories and artwork that also imparts something good, true, and beautiful.”

Together with a team of artists — Timothy Lim, Brett R. Smith, Matthew Weldon, and Dave Dorman, to name a few — Ernst brings to life characters who dedicate themselves to serving God after serving their country. They apply their experience of fighting in the physical world to, now, battling in the spiritual realm. 

The series is already saving souls, both inside and outside of its pages. 

“I love it when someone writes me and says that reading the books brought them back to the Catholic Church after they drifted away,” Ernst revealed. “Perhaps they haven’t gone to Mass in years, but something in the stories rekindled the flame of faith.”

Stories of selfless service

A Catholic veteran himself, Ernst shares something in common with his protagonists. He served as a mechanized infantryman in the ‘90s, leaving before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He saw many of his friends go to war — and never return.

Ernst brings this background to his books, which follow the adventures of Retter (an Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran), Father Reginald Crane (a Vietnam veteran), and Detective Gregory Chua. 

“My hope is that I’ve done right by the military community,” he said. “Selfless service and the willingness to lay down one’s life for another is a crucial component of the series.” 

Ernst, who previously worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., now splits his time between Reno, Nevada, and Missoula, Montana, while focusing on his graphic novels.

His first two — “Soulfinder: Demon’s Match” and “Soulfinder: Black Tide” — greet readers with vivid colors and rich Catholic symbolism. The second book, available in hardcover, shimmers with gilded pages — and even a glow-in-the-dark monster. 

“Where are the Catholic creators who will attempt to pick up where G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien left off?” asks Douglas Ernst, the creator of the "Soulfinder" graphic novels. ICONIC Comics
“Where are the Catholic creators who will attempt to pick up where G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien left off?” asks Douglas Ernst, the creator of the “Soulfinder” graphic novels. ICONIC Comics

There is a dramatic reality at the core of these works of fiction. The series illustrates Catholic priests not only as courageous heroes but also as imperfect human beings — men who may fall, but always pick themselves back up, driven by a desire to do the right thing. Along the way, their personality (and sense of humor) shines through the narrative.

Available through ICONIC Comics, the first two volumes also appear on Amazon Kindle. In January, both made No. 1 on Amazon’s list of new releases in “Religious Graphic Novels.”

Inspired by Catholic writers

Ernst — who learned to read by devouring the adventures of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Daredevil, and Captain America as a boy — began his series after encountering mainstream comic books filled with moral relativism.

 “Where are the Catholic creators who will attempt to pick up where G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien left off?” he asked. “That’s a tall task, but the culture will continue to drift into dangerous waters if Catholic writers and artists do not enter as many creative places as possible.”  

 Ernst shared what he did to prepare for the books, to ensure that they were theologically sound.

Being a “cradle Catholic” helped, he admitted, in addition to consulting with other Catholics, including a priest. His stories, he said, have been inspired by the works of St. Francis de Sales, Father Gabriele Amorth, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and others.

 Ernst began the series after organizing a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign. He also credits his success to working with talented artists and to Word on Fire, Bishop Robert Barron’s media ministry, which has featured his work in blog and YouTube interviews.

A ‘PG-13’ advisory

 Teenagers and adults seeking classic storytelling with “good vs. evil” seem to enjoy Soulfinder, Ernst said of his series, which he rates as “PG-13.” This is because, among other things, the series addresses a dark subject matter. 

 In his first book with artist Timothy Lim, also a practicing Catholic, a black mass scene involves a naked woman.

 “She is nude, but there’s shadows where there needs to be shadows,” Ernst pointed out the strategic shading over her body. “It’s also shown as a bad thing.”

 While the series is for more mature readers, it offers content for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

 “Most Catholic characters in modern comics and in Hollywood tend to be cartoonish version of the Faith,” he said. 

His series, he emphasized, is different.

 “It makes me incredibly happy when readers who are not Catholic say that these stories show a side of our faith that they have never encountered before.”

 Third book on the way

 Ernst told CNA the third installment of the series is in production.

 “‘Soulfinder: Infinite Ascent’ takes our heroes to the other side of the world to apprehend a rogue member of the CIA who has evaded capture through supernatural means,” Ernst told CNA. “The U.S. government was so impressed with Father Retter and his friends regarding their success in ‘Soulfinder: Black Tide’ that it returns to them once again to clean up a global network of occultists.” 

 While there is no official release date yet, Ernst expects the book to be colored and lettered in March. From there, it will be sent to the printer. 

 “The story, at its core, focuses on the loss of loved ones, grief, and the need for forgiveness,” Ernst hinted. “The key to saving the day hinges on one character’s ability to forgive others for their trespasses against him.”

 The volume will include a bonus story, “Soulfinder: War Cry, which takes place at Arlington Cemetery.

 In the end, Ernst hopes that these books will bring him, and his readers, closer to heaven.

 “I know that one day I will stand before my Creator and I’ll have to give an account of what I’ve done with the talents I’ve been given,” he said. “I hope that my creative team has done its small part in saving souls while simultaneously entertaining readers.”

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