A new push to train priests in Italy and Spain to perform the mysterious rite of exorcism could rid these two Catholic countries of their demons—or at least confront a growth in occult worship.
Every weekday morning (except Thursdays), 76-year-old Father Vincenzo Taraborelli receives parishioners with a particular spiritual dilemma after the 8:30am mass in the Church of Traspontina, a stone’s throw away from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In an incense-thick, candlelit corner of the church, he blesses the troubled with a prayer and holy water to ward off evil spirits. On Wednesday mornings before mass, he recites the rosary in a special prayer of liberation from the chains of the devil. The followers in the pews are glued to his every word, seemingly dependent on his blessing to keep the devil at bay.
Father Taraborelli is a trained exorcist for the Rome diocese, and his work schedule is very busy. He takes calls to set up appointments for private exorcisms on a dedicated cellphone number he only answers between 9 and 10pm each night. The rest of the time, he is performing the Catholic ritual to those in need.
“The church is very clear on the rite of exorcism,” he told The Daily Beast after one of his spiritual cleansing sessions this week. First, the person requesting the exorcism must be seen by a physician to make sure the cause of the perceived possession is not mental illness. That, he says, is at the crux of why Pope Francis wants to train more exorcists. “Exorcists need to be certified to eliminate the practice of exorcism by untrained novices,” Taraborelli says. “Otherwise it can be very dangerous for the person who believes he is under the devil’s possession.”
Taraborelli, who says he performs up to 100 exorcisms some weeks, is part of a new training program in Italian Catholic churches designed to teach priests called to this particular specialization. Similar programs have been launched in Spain and Malta, where a spike in devil-worshiping practices has caused concern among Catholics. A host of new websites advertising everything from pagan rituals to training in black magic and the occult have sprung up in recent years and the Catholic church is hoping to fight fire with holy water. In Milan, seven new exorcists have been certified for service. In Florence, five new exorcists now take appointments.
John Allen, Vatican expert and correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, told The Daily Telegraph that the move to officially train more exorcists is both a response to public demand and a matter of “quality control.” He says, “There are all these guys, some of them priests, who have set themselves up as exorcists.” Allen, who calls the rogue exorcists “dodgy,” says the biggest problem is that they are performing the rite under false pretenses since they were not officially trained.
Taraborelli, who was trained 50 years ago and who has in turn trained hundreds of exorcists to perform the sacred rite, says pop-culture books and movies have largely romanticized the procedure. “You often see the exorcist portrayed looking as evil as the possessed,” he says.
The rite of exorcism is not quite as sensational as movies and legend might have one believe. According to the official Catholic Church book of rites, the priest performing the exorcism must first go to confession and or otherwise clear his own soul for the process. He officiates over the rite in purple stole over a simple tunic. Then the possessed person kneels before him as the priest sprinkles holy water on both himself and the penitent—and any bystanders who might be there as witnesses. He then recites a string of prayers including the often tedious Litany of the saints, the Our Father prayer and other lengthy prayers before dutifully driving the devil away with a prayer that begins, “I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every spectre from hell, and all your fell companions…”
If it doesn’t work and the possessed still feels he is doing the devil’s work, the exorcism can be repeated as often as is necessary. And if it does work and the person feels free, Taraborelli says he always recommends that the newly liberated person spend a lot of time in serious prayer, like “taking vitamins after getting rid of a bad flu.”