ROME—Exorcist Ernest Simoni is no devil’s advocate. The 89-year-old cardinal says he has come face to face with Satan hundreds of times, and lately he even drives out demons by cellphone.
Simoni is the Hell-fighting darling of the 13th annual exorcists convention, called “Exorcisms and the Prayer of Liberation,” put on by the Vatican’s Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum in central Rome this week. During opening remarks on Monday, he told more than 250 exorcists from 51 countries that he sometimes performs four or five exorcisms by phone every single day from his native Albania. He also performs frequent exorcisms on Albanian Muslims who come to him seeking spiritual liberation from the devil because, he says, the possessed aren’t just Catholics.
Simoni recounted several instances of spiritual success to those who had gathered. “There was a very tall woman. It took six people to hold her down in a chair. After hours and hours of struggle, I was able to banish the evil. I cast out the demons. This is the power of God,” he said at the conference. “There are millions of people who are possessed by Satan. But when Satan hears the word of God, he is terrified.”
The week-long course features seminars with such titles as “Angels and Demons in Sacred Scripture and the Teachings of the Church” and “Magic, Esoteric and Occult Bonds of Alternative and Energetic Therapies.” There are panels on African witchcraft such as the JuJu curse, Afro-American cults present in Latin America, and symbology to look out for in satanic rituals using online pedopornography.
Those in attendance will also hear from criminologists, medical doctors and psychologists to help exorcists discern between genuine devil possession and mental illness or even creative criminals who claim the devil made them do it.
The exorcist convention, which costs participants $370 and an extra $308 for those who want simultaneous translation from Italian, has grown tenfold since the first one held in 2004. Then, exorcists gathered to share ideas and pray about how to incorporate new regulations set forth by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it revised norms for the rite of exorcism in 1999. Some of the new regulations incorporated consulting lay Catholics from the medical and mental health communities to help determine if mental illness is an underlying factor in what, at first glance, appeared to be satanic possession.
Every year, the convention organizers have sought to bring in more varied speakers to help those on the front line of the battle between good and evil. Simoni’s suggestion that exorcisms can be performed over the phone was met with harsh criticism on the sidelines of the conference, where priests who regularly conduct the rite advised against it because the possessed person often writhes and levitates during the extraction of the devil from his or her soul.
There are approximately 400 trained exorcists in Italy alone, where the number of exorcism requests tops half a million each year. Many of those belong to the International Association of Exorcists which was set up in 1990 by the Vatican’s most famous exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who is the subject of a new docudrama called The Devil and Father Amorth to be released April 20 by William Friedkin, maker of the 1973 blockbuster "The Exorcist."
Writing about his real life experience in Vanity Fair, Friedkin says when he made his original horror movie, which introduced Linda Blair’s head spin, thereafter commonly associated with satanic possession, he had never witnessed an actual exorcism. Now he has, and it will be the highlight of the new film.
Amorth invited him to attend the exorcism of Rosa, a woman in her 30s who had already undergone nine exorcisms by Amorth, who believed that “her infestation was made worse by the curse from her brother and his girlfriend,” according to Friedkin.
“Rosa’s head began to nod involuntarily. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell into a deep trance,” he writes. “Father Amorth spoke in Latin in a loud, clear voice, using the Roman ritual of Paul V, from 1614. He asked the Lord to set her free from demonic infestation. ‘Exorcizo deo immundissimus spiritus.’ (I exorcise, oh God, this unclean spirit.) Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers had all they could do to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.”
Not all exorcism rites performed by the exorcists in Rome are quite as sensational. Many are run of the mill religious rites that are said to work immediately with little fanfare. And not everyone agrees that devil possession is real. Speaking to the Guardian ahead of the conference, several critics of the Vatican’s use of exorcism warn that “deliverance ministry can be a form of spiritual abuse.” These critics are especially concerned when members of the LGBTQ community are told that their “sexuality or psychiatric problems are the result of demonic possession.”
Still, the convention is popular. Father Benigno Palilla, the exorcist of Palermo, warns that not every priest has what it takes to chase the devil. “Novices should leave training in the art of exorcism to the professionals and not attempt the expulsion of evil spirits without appropriate supervision,” he told Vatican Radio. “A self-taught exorcist certainly makes errors.”
In his latest exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis, who has said all priests should have an exorcist on call, says the devil is a personal being who assails the faithful. “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” he writes. “This mistake would leave us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”
The pope is not expected to attend this edition of the exorcists convention, but he did extend a special blessing meant to embolden the exorcists before they will head back to their home parishes armed with even less sympathy for the devil.