ROME—On entering the grand hall of the Vatican’s Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum on the outskirts of Rome, only a flickering fluorescent light gives even the slightest hint that what amounts to a massive séance is under way.
One would have to pass through frosted-glass doors from the heavenly white foyer into the paneled plenary hall, where 240 specialists in Satan have gathered for this 14th annual “Course on Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation,” which is sponsored by the Vatican and blessed by Pope Francis.
This year, for the first time ever, the Vatican has invited those from other religions who do a daily battle with the devil. There are witch doctors, high priests and even Protestants on tap. There are also law enforcement officials who will try to provide warning signs when someone might be faking diabolical possession to get out of legal trouble. And there are more psychologists speaking than in previous years. These outsiders are here to guide priests who might otherwise blame the devil’s work for serious crimes and mental illness.
Speakers from Nigeria are discussing the black magic JuJu curse that is so often used to manipulate and keep women in slavery. A speaker from the Philippines will discuss the Aswang spirit, and its hold over superstitious Catholics in that country. There is even a Brazilian psychologist on tap to describe the bestial Besta-fera that has tempted so many Christians away from their faith.
“Catholics are by no means the only Christians who have developed methods to help possessed people or to rid a space of evil spirits,” says Father Pedro Barrajón, an exorcist from Spain who is in charge of programming at the conference. “This is the first time we have included so many other religious representatives to share how they do this work,” he said during the lunch break on Tuesday. “We think collaborating will help us create best practices.”
While it may be incredibly hard for the unanointed to take an exorcism conference seriously, those in attendance certainly do. The week-long event costs $450 without room and board, and while certain panels are limited to trained exorcists—those will deal with the finer points of restraint and deciphering when a possessed person speaks in tongues—this year, teachers, psychologists and social workers are in attendance to learn how to give the devil the kind of treatment he’s due.
That said, the organizers stress they only want those who truly believe in their work. “We don’t open it to everyone, obviously,” Barrajón says. “That would open us up to being infiltrated by devil worshippers, not those trying to fight him. It is not something we think should be taken lightly.”
Exorcisms are an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church, which has trained and certified 404 full exorcists and 124 exorcist assistants worldwide. Exorcisms are performed regularly in dioceses throughout the world and in most cases when a diocese does not have a Vatican-trained exorcist nearby, the Vatican will send someone to help. If they can’t, exorcisms can be guided by phone or even videoconference.
An umbrella group called the International Association of Exorcists, which is also Vatican-backed, has 200 card-carrying members from Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches, many of whom are in attendance at the conference in Rome.
In Italy, where some 500,000 people a year ask for exorcisms or prayers of liberation from evil spirits, there are special priests like Father Benigno Palilla in Sicily on hand to train exorcists. He told The Daily Beast that it is not just Catholics who ask for exorcisms in Italy. “We have over the years had an increasing number of Nigerian refugees inflicted by the JuJu curse,” he says. “We have also seen a recent surge in the interest in witchcraft and occult, which we believe can be exorcised.”
Devil possessions are not the stuff of movies, says Barrajón, who readily admits that pop culture has made the whole thing seem slightly romantic. “There is never head spinning or levitation or that sort of thing,” he insists. “But you have people with abnormal body strength or they vomit or they suddenly speak a language they had never before spoken.” The most common tongues, he says, are Latin and Hebrew.
The exorcism rite prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church calls for the the exorcist to go to confession first, lest he inflict the possessed with his own sins. Then the ceremony starts similarly to other Catholic rituals, with ample sprinkling of holy water and the recital of the Litany of the Saints.
Then it gets real.
“I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God,” the priest says before commanding the devil to leave the possessed person, according to the Catholic Catechism book. “Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent. Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster, give way to Christ, in whom you found none of your works.”
The commands for the devil to go get stronger as the exorcism wears on while the exorcist works to calm the person on whom he is performing the ritual, frequently laying his hands on the afflicted. Restraints are used if necessary. If it doesn't work, the exorcist will return as often as necessary to perform the rite again, Barrajón says.
On the sidelines of the conference, Father Charles Chukwunedum Anene from Nigeria, who will be giving a talk Wednesday on the fight against the JuJu curse in Nigeria, said the event is useful. “It is key to take what we learn back home to try to do better for our people,” he says. “Exorcism is not a one-size-fits all—you have to understand the nature of the devil you are fighting.”
One of the key criticisms of exorcism has long been that devout Catholics may overlook serious psychological issues when they are convinced their loved one is possessed. This denial can be dangerous for the afflicted. Several sessions on Thursday are dedicated to the psychological aspects of exorcism, and the importance of having priests trained in psychology on-call to help when an exorcist is in doubt about the real root of the particular evil.
The week-long conference wraps up Saturday with a roundtable during which all the participants will be invited to share methodology tips to help determine what works and what doesn't.
During the week, there are several panels dedicated to internet pornography, pedophilia and the occult—all of which are seen as byproducts of devil possession.
When asked if the current clerical sex abuse crisis that has rotted the core of the Catholic Church is on the agenda, organizers shrugged and said that the conference is about something “entirely different.”
Clerical sex abuse has, for decades, been considered a sin that can be forgiven, only recently have church leaders, including Pope Francis, called it what it is: a crime. Clerical sex abuse is not specifically on the agenda at this edition of the conference.
“This is the most comprehensive conference we have had so far, and the best attended,” Maria Chiara Petrosillo, one of the main organizers, told The Daily Beast. “The number of requests for information we received underscores how important this issue is becoming. You can’t just pretend it is only a Catholic problem. The devil is everywhere.”