ROME — Citing what organizers describe as a culture saturated with “sexy young vampires” that trivialize evil, New Age spirituality, and a burgeoning interest in the occult and Tarot cards, a fabled Roman course held in mid-April aimed to boost the number of Catholic priests trained every year to perform exorcisms.
The annual week-long course on “Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation,” offered by an institute for priests linked to the Legionaries of Christ religious order and sponsored by Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, concluded on Saturday.
More than 170 priests from more than 30 countries traveled to Rome to learn about this centuries-old rite, often “misrepresented” in Hollywood movies: Making evil sexy for teenagers, course organizers say, films about exorcism usually go too far.
“Exorcism movies have some foundation in real life experiences,” said the Rev. Pedro Barrajón, a Spanish priest. “But there’s too much sparkle added.”
The formation program, held April 13-18, was also open to a handful of lay people. It’s billed as an aid to deepen the ministry of exorcism, as well as a way to assist bishops in the preparation of priests licensed.
While any priest can perform exorcism, they need special permission from a bishop to do so. In recent years, more bishops have been designating priests for the role, citing popular demand.
A member of the Legionaries and head of the program for aspiring exorcists, Barrajón told Crux that the course began a decade ago at the request of bishops.
The practice of exorcism has deep roots.
The word comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “to pray or ask deeply,” and originally it had nothing to do with expelling demons. In the early Christian Church, however, this term came to mean the practice of casting out evil spirits.
Titled De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam – “Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications” – the Church’s official rite for expelling demons cautions against treating people who are simply “victims of imagination” as opposed to actually possessed by a demon.
The 84-page document, most recently revised in 1999, contains prayers and exhortations from a 1614 edition, and presents an image of Satan as “a spirit without body, without color, and without odor.”
The course discussed the contents of the ritual, and it featured international experts on the anthropological, phenomenological, and social dimensions of Satan worship, as well as the canonical, legal, and psychological dimensions of exorcism.
According to Italian professor Giuseppe Ferrari of the Research Group of Socio-Religious Formation, another seminar organizer, the growing interest in exorcism is driven by the number of people asking for help.
Ferrari, an expert in esotericism and Satanism, argued that a spike in depictions of vampires and magic in pop culture represent a threat to the souls of young people.
“Some get attracted to [the occult] by listening to hard rock, heavy metal, which spread Satanic messages,” he said. “Others are fans of ‘True Blood’ or ‘Twilight.’”
At the extremes, Ferrari said, there are groups that encourage people to drink human blood “to turn into vampires” or that encourage teenagers to “have special sexual relations to obtain special powers,” saying all these phenomena illustrate the cultural context for today’s spike in requests for exorcism.
In a statement to Crux, the International Exorcist Association (IEA), founded by the famed Roman exorcist, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth – who was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the 2011 film “The Rite” – said that demonic possession is an extraordinary action of the devil, which is less frequent, the statement said, than the “ordinary” one, which is temptation.
Temptation, the statement said, is the most dangerous of the things the devil does, because it can “lead the soul to willingly fall in sin risking damnation.”
This risk, the statement said, is stronger than ever, the result of a way of thinking and loving that reflects materialism, self-centeredness, selfishness, pride, malice, and arrogance.
“We witness a deification of man and his self-centeredness,” according to the statement.
Barrajón agrees on the dangers of temptation, adding that he’s grateful Pope Francis has talked about the devil and evil in a less trivialized way than other Catholics have in recent memory.
“Even today, there are people who still believe that the action of the devil is only what we see in movies such as The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose or the Rite,” Barrajón said. “Francis reminds us that the devil works through sin and by distancing us from God.”
He attributed this ease with talking about the devil to the pope’s Jesuit formation.
In the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, there are passages exploring “the kingdoms of God and of Satan” and how to protect oneself form the “traps of the malign.”
Still, he said, Francis also makes clear that God is ultimately stronger.
“What Francis, and the Church, say is that God is just but rich in mercy,” Barrajón said. “This is what the pope is telling us with the upcoming year of Mercy: God is more beautiful than evil.”
The International Exorcist Association, created in 1993, was formally recognized under Church law by Pope Francis in 2014.
Welcoming the group in November of last year, the pontiff told them that the “battle against evil and the devil” is becoming an “emergency.”
Francis has said that the world “was led to believe that the devil was a myth, a picture, an idea, the idea of evil. But the devil exists, and we have to fight him. These are Saint Paul’s words, not mine!”
One lay participant, who asked not to be identified, told Crux that her interest in exorcism, and her bishop’s support, were a direct result of an increase in requests for information about exorcism.
She said that in the 15 years she’s worked in a parish, questions from parents concerned about their children playing with the Ouija board or having their palms read were normal, but now teenagers are attracted to these things “as a moth to the light.”
When giving catechesis, she said, warnings against what the Church considers might lead to an extraordinary action of the devil can no longer be compared to “raised eyebrows against Harry Potter.”
Talking about the role of an exorcist, the Rev. Aldo Buonaiuto said that those who perform exorcisms or prayers of liberation aren’t “Batman,” fighting evil in a “flashy way.”
The job of an exorcist, he said, is to bring the word of God into the possessed, and the first exorcism is the sacrament of confession.
Buonaiuto is a member of the Italian Association of Pope John XXIII. Among other things, the group fights the influence of sects and the occult. In 2002 they opened a “green line” to assist those who suspect a loved one is possessed. Last year alone, they had more than 2,000 phone calls.
Barrajón claimed that the presence of evil in the post-modern world is almost ubiquitous.
“The devil is always lurking where there’s prepotency, abuse, lies, and deception,” he said.