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10.29.14 9:00 PM ET

Pope Francis Gives Blessing to Exorcist Conference

Driving out demons isn’t a job for amateurs, but it may help the mentally ill.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has given a special blessing to a group of some 300 Catholic exorcists meeting in Rome this week ahead of All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead (and, yes, Halloween). They are “helping those who suffer because of the work of the devil,” he said, which may seem a little strange coming from the same pontiff who was arguing earlier this week for a greater acceptance of science and reason. But the devil, to coin a phrase, is in the details.

The nature of devils and demons, and their relationship to all kinds of psychological disturbances (or vice versa) is a complicated question, but on one point the Church is unequivocal: exorcism is no job for amateurs. For both the possessed and the priest-practitioner, driving out the devil can be dangerous to mind, body and spirit.

circa 1950:  An Italian priest performs an exorcism on a man who has been placed in a trance. The neck of the sick man is fenced in by the penitent-ring of Saint Vicinius, and a piece of holy cloth is placed over his heart.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

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An Italian priest performs an exorcism on a man who has been placed in a trance. The neck of the sick man is fenced in by the penitent-ring of Saint Vicinius, and a piece of holy cloth is placed over his heart.

The International Association of Exorcists was recognized in June by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and convened here in Rome this week to discuss “best practices” and hear from psychologists who specialize in recognizing what may often be indistinguishable differences between demonic possession and mental illness.

Francis, who is especially fond of speaking about the devil in his homilies and blessings, told the exorcists that the Church is open to everyone, even the possessed. “The church welcomes those suffering from the devil’s works,” he said.

Exorcism is an important skill set for those specialized Catholic priests who are chosen to undo the devil’s dirty work. Catholic dioceses are required to have a designated exorcist on call who has been trained in the Catholic rite and who can get to work cleansing the soul at a moment’s notice.  According to Canon 1172 of the Vatican’s Canon Law, “No one can perform exorcisms legitimately upon the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local ordinary,” which usually means from the bishop. And he is to give this permission only to a priest “who has piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life.”

Father Vicenzo Taraborelli in Rome is an exorcist with set office hours and dedicated phone lines to take exorcism appointments.  He performs the rites every morning except Thursdays.  He also performs special blessings for those with devilish concerns before morning mass on Wednesdays in a dark incense-laden corner of the Church of Traspontina near St. Peter’s Square.  He told The Daily Beast that it is important that exorcists are certified to “eliminate the practices of exorcism by untrained novices.” Taraborelli, who says some weeks he performs a hundred exorcisms, explains that without that certification “it can be very dangerous for the person who believes he is under the devil’s possession.”

The demand for exorcists is kept alive by a rise in Satanic worship and the occult, according to Walter Cascioli, the spokesperson for the International Association of Exorcists. “The struggle against evil and the devil is becoming an emergency,” he told Vatican Radio on the sidelines of the exorcist convention.  He says certain books, and even scary Halloween horror movies, tempt people to the devil. 

“The number of people who are turning to these practices, which are psychologically, spiritually and morally damaging, is on the rise,” says Cascioli, while the “weakening of faith” contributes to the readiness with which some are drawn to the devil and succumb to mental illness. “Sometimes we have situations of alienation, even mentally, which is a secondary effect of extraordinary demonic activity,” he says.

The rite of exorcism is criticized by some mental health specialists as dangerous in itself, because it allows people to believe they are treating a mental illness without, in fact, getting proper psychological care. But Dr. Stephen Diamond, writing in Psychology Today, argues that for the super-spiritual, exorcism can provide a facet of treatment that secular psychology often misses.

“For some bedeviled individuals, the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of ‘demonic possession’ serves to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by mainstream psychiatry and psychology,” Diamond writes. “If psychotherapy as a healing of the soul (not just the mind) is to survive and thrive into the future, our current overemphasis on cognition, behavior, genetics, neurology and biochemistry must be counterbalanced by the inclusion of the spiritual … dimension of human existence.” 

He also says that unless psychology can provide “a better or at least equally satisfying, meaningful alternate explanation of the possession syndrome—and a more effective way to deal with it— belief in demonic possession and the practice of exorcism are bound to persist.”

The actual Catholic rite of exorcism is a far cry, as it were, for the sensational potrayal in movies and legend.  According to the Catholic Church book of rites, the priest performing the exorcism must first confess his sins to clear his own soul before performing the ceremony.  He officiates over the rite in purple stole over a simple tunic. Then the possessed person kneels before him as he sprinkles holy water on everyone, including himself and any bystanders who might be witnesses. 

The priest then recites a string of prayers including the Litany of the Saints and the Lord’s Prayer before chasing the devil away with a final prayer that starts: “I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every specter from hell, and all your fell companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be gone and stay far from this creature of God.” It climaxes with: “Hearken, therefore, and tremble in fear, Satan, you enemy of the faith, you foe of the human race, you begetter of death, you robber of life, you corrupter of justice, you root of all evil and vice; seducer of men, betrayer of the nations, instigator of envy, font of avarice, fomenter of discord, author of pain and sorrow.”

For those who believe they are possessed, the exorcism rite often takes just one performance to rid them of the devil, followed by spiritual counseling and daily mass.

“Exorcism is a form of charity, helping the people who suffer; it is part of, without a doubt, the works of corporal and spiritual mercy,” Father Francesco Bamonte, the head of the International Association of Exorcists told L’Osservatore Romano this week.  “God calls some priests to the precious ministry of exorcism and liberation, giving them the task of accompanying those people who require specific spiritual and pastoral attention with humility faith and charity.”

Pope Francis says that the only way to fight Satan is to “defend yourselves with the word of God” and not try to enter into dialogue or argue with the devil, who, he says, tries to seduce the weak.  “Maybe some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’” he said last spring.  “But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here… even in the 21st century! And we mustn’t be naïve, right?”