The Roman Catholic Church chose its words carefully. Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi stated that the priest "didn't intend to perform any exorcism." The Rev. Juan Rivas, who witnessed the event, tried to stick to the Vatican's position and insisted the practitioner merely said a prayer to free the afflicted from the devil – some serious wordsmithing to get around the term “exorcism.” The event in question did not occur a thousand years ago, nor even a hundred when it could have been explained by a lack of modern medical and psychiatric knowledge. It occurred two years ago. The practitioner? Pope Francis.
"In this generation, like so many others, people have been led to believe that the devil is a myth, a figure, an idea, the idea of evil. But the devil exists and we must fight against him."
Pope Francis (2014)
The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, a prominent exorcist for the diocese of Rome, was blunt in his statement: "The Pope, in good faith, got close to him and performed an exorcism on him in the form of a liberation prayer." According to Amorth, after four centuries without a recorded exorcism by a pope, Pope Francis was simply continuing a trend started by his predecessors: Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. The return of exorcist popes is one of several aspects in the modern rise of exorcism within the Catholic Church.
In Italy alone, Amorth said, the number of church appointed exorcists increased from 20 to 300 in the fifteen years between 1985-2000. The uptick was a global phenomenon. In the United States, the exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, Father James LeBar, stated that in 1990 he had no cases but by 2000 he was “dealing with 10 to 15 cases a week.”
Pope St. John Paul II was early to recognize the increasing need. In his 2003 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Gregis, he urged all bishops of the Church to "regulate in a suitable way and through the careful choice of suitable ministers the discipline governing the practice of exorcism." Under his papacy, the number of Catholic-sanctioned exorcists in the US grew from one to nineteen, according to Fordham University sociologist Michael Cuneo. Their ranks further increased to approximately 30 US exorcists under Pope Benedict XVI.
“He who does not believe in the devil does not believe in the Gospel.”
Pope St. John Paul II (2000)
Apparently even more troops were needed to prevail in the worldwide war against the devil, so in 2005 the Vatican began what would become an annual training in exorcism. The Catholic News Agency called the new course, “Practical help for the demon-possessed.” In April 2015, the tenth annual six-day training session, “Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation,” attracted 170 students, mainly priests and nuns. There they learned to do battle with demons who have taken possession of human bodies, demons who are daring to operate in the earthly realm, instead of in hell.
To further embed command and control functionality of the exorcist effort within the mother Church, Pope Francis oversaw the formal recognition under canon law of the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) on June 13, 2014. IAE now operates in thirty countries.
Coming soon to your hometown, your neighborhood exorcist. Actually, he may already be there.
"The battle against evil and the devil increasingly is becoming an emergency."
Dr Valter Cascioli, International Association of Exorcists (2014)
According to ancient accounts, the practice of exorcism began with Solomon, King of Israel. He was trying to build the First Temple in Jerusalem in the mid-10th century BCE. Demons kept tearing down stones from the construction, so Archangel Michael gave Solomon a magic ring that allowed him to force the demons to work with him to finish the temple. Solomon also used the ring to induce demons to reveal the mystical formula by which they can be banished – and so began exorcism as a prescribed ritual. Solomon wrote all this down in a book for his son Rehoboam, who, fearing the book’s power, sealed in an ivory box and buried it with his father’s body. Some tales report that the box was found by Toz Graecus, a Greek, and the knowledge was preserved. The word exorcism is itself from the Greek exorkismos, meaning to bind by oath.
But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.
Luke 11:20 (KJV)
Advancing into the Christian Era, the King James Bible refers to exorcists and exorcism sixteen times. While this number is dwarfed by the over sixty references to witches, sorcerers, and their craft, most of those are found in the Old Testament while exorcism is a decidedly New Testament phenomenon.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, the first recorded order of exorcists was created in the third century by a pope who had the most miraculous election in history. Pope St. Fabian was an unknown layman standing in the spectators’ galley during a papal election when the cardinals, moved by the sight of a dove descending on his head, spontaneously declared him pope. The rite of exorcism then became part of the official canon of the Roman Church at the Fourth Council of Carthage in 398, and has been ever since.
The rite of exorcism is straightforward, if not easy. Through a set of prescribed prayers, the exorcist attempts to draw upon enough power of the Holy Spirit to require the demon to reveal its name. Once the name of the “unclean spirit” is had, the exorcist can compel it to leave the afflicted person.
With a modern resurgence of people experiencing what the Committee on Divine Worship calls "assaults by the devil," new rules of engagement were needed. In November of 2014, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved an updated version of the manual Of Exorcisms and Related Supplications, the first major revision since 1614, and the first version in English. They also reinforced the need for every diocese to establish a protocol to respond to the “demonically afflicted.”
To help with the process, the Committee on Divine Worship posted a handy "Frequently Asked Questions About Exorcism" on its website. Never heard about your local exorcist? That can in part be explained by the Committee’s directive: "…that the identity of the exorcist be kept secret or at most known only to the other priests of the diocese..."
It appears that the US church is making progress in its preparations to fight the devil’s horde, as reported in the Catholic World Report (CWR) in April of last year: "Until recently there have been only a few exorcists in the United States, but the bishops are currently having dozens of priests schooled in this ministry at specialized centers." Today it is estimated that there are over 100 Vatican-sanctioned American exorcists. Plus all the non-Catholic practitioners. CWR reported that: "In the Protestant world there is no dearth of exorcists, especially among Evangelical and Pentecostal communities." The same holds true for many other non-Christian faith paths.
"Since 2011, the U.S. Catholic Church has quintupled the number of known exorcists, largely because bishops are receiving so many requests for investigations into demonic activity."
Fr. Vince Lampert, exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. (2015)
Why the recent surge of demonic battles? What caused Dr Valter Cascioli, the spokesman for the International Association of Exorcists, to alert the public in 2014 to "an extraordinary increase in demonic activity?" That is a complex question with many hidden undercurrents, like the beginning of any major conflict. And the only one who can truly answer the Why now? question, the devil, is not commenting. Whatever the reason, the Vatican is mustering its troops as battles mount. The victors will write the history, as they always do – the question is will they be human or demonic.
The war is escalating, a war being fought by the exorcist next door.
"On this point, there are no nuances. There is a battle and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation."
Pope Francis (2013)
- The New York Times: "Exorcist Says Pope Helped ‘Liberate’ Man.", May 21, 2013.
- Catholic News Agency: "Famous Exorcist Says Pope's Simple Prayer Cast out Demon." Estefania Aguirre, May 24, 3013.
- Amorth, Gabriele. An Exorcist Tells His Story. Ignatius Press, 1999.
- The Christians.com, A journal of Contemporary Christian History: "That is the exorcist’s story." Lianne Laurence, May 29, 2013.
- Catholic Education Resource Center: "Exorcisms on the Rise", Paul Burnell, June 4, 2000.
- Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Gregis Of His Holiness Pope John Paul II On The Bishop, Servant Of The Gospel Of Jesus Christ For The Hope Of The World. 22 October, 2003.
- S. Catholic Magazine: "They're Baaack! What's behind the Return of the Exorcist." Daniel Burke, June 1, 2011.
- Davies, Owen. Grimoires: A History Of Magic Books. Oxford University Press.
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Frequently Asked Questions about Exorcism, 2014. http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacraments-and-sacramentals/sacramentals-blessings/exorcism.cfm
- The Catholic World Report: "The Return of the Exorcists." Alessandra Nucci, April 08, 2015
- Vatican Radio: October 27, 2014, interview with Dr Valter Cascioli.
- Catholic News Agency: "Practical help for the demon-possessed: Vatican rolls out new exorcism course" Ann Schneible, April 10, 2015.