The Devil’s own work: Why do priests still perform exorcisms?

Exorcism is a Hollywood favourite, the latest being 'The Rite'. The Catholic Church continues with the ritual, but will only talk about it behind closed doors. What are they afraid of, asks Peter Stanford

Of the approximately 70,000 exorcisms he has carried out, Father Gabriele Amorth estimates that fewer than 100 have been cases of genuine demonic possession.

The chief exorcist of the diocese of Rome quotes this second figure as if to comfort me, but to a modern Catholic, convinced that the Devil is just a face the church has traditionally put to the otherwise intangible presence of evil in the world, 100 sounds like an awful lot of encounters with someone I don't believe exists.

I am momentarily struck dumb as we sit on either side of a table in Father Gabriele's bare-walled office, situated in an anonymous church building on the outskirts of Rome. A large crucifix lies between us, resting on a purple cushion. I want to ask if he is absolutely sure he wasn't mistaken in those 100 cases, but everything about the manner of this burly, pugnacious priest, in his mid-80s and with a deeply-lined bulldog face, makes plain he means every single word.

"It is vital," he continues, "to distinguish two causes [for apparent demonic possession]: for most people it is an illness of the psyche that can be cured by psychiatry." We are getting back onto more familiar, shared ground. Instead of splashing those who come here to seek his help with holy water and reading the rite of exorcism, as was the standard practice of the medieval church, he appears to be accepting the need for referral to a suitably qualified doctor, much more in keeping with modern, mainstream Christianity.

"But," says Father Gabriele, "there are the others, the small number of real possessions. Often they were outwardly normal people, going about their lives in a normal way." And when he exorcises them, what exactly happens? "I have had people vomit up nails during an exorcism," he replies matter-of-factly, "others pieces of glass, others pieces of radio equipment."

Radio equipment? It sounds almost comical, but he is not smiling. At no point during our 30 minutes together does he come anywhere near a smile. And neither, do I. "The Devil works through the media," he explains, looking me straight in the eye, knowing full well I am a journalist.

This chilling encounter with Father Gabriele came back vividly as I watched The Rite, Hollywood's latest follow-up to The Exorcist, the iconic 1973 horror film that remains fixed in the memory of anyone brave enough to watch it all the way through. The Rite explores similar territory as it follows a young, thoroughly modern American priest, Father Michael Kovak, (Colin O'Donoghue) who is sent to Rome by his bishop, against his wishes, to attend a training course for exorcists being run in the headquarters of Catholicism.

Deeply sceptical about what he sees as the outdated mumbo-jumbo that is demonology, Father Michael proves so disruptive on the course that he is referred by his tutor (Ciarán Hinds) to the eminence noire of Rome exorcists, Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins). "Do you believe in sin?" Father Lucas barks at his visitor. It instantly put me in mind of Father Gabriele. "I do, but I don't believe the Devil makes us do it," Father Michael replies with the sort of courage I lacked in my brush with an old-style exorcist in Rome.

The younger cleric initially sticks to his sane, rational, 21st century guns over the nonexistence of the Devil. "She doesn't need a priest," he tells Father Lucas of one of his tortured charges, her belly swelling, her eyes rolling and her fiendish screams intensifying, "she needs a shrink". Yet by the end of this horror-thriller, Father Michael is as ready to brandish his crucifix as a weapon against Satan as Father Lucas.

Despite its primary vocation to terrify cinema-goers, The Rite cannot lightly be dismissed as a piece of shameless exaggeration and sensationalism because it does manage to get much of the incidental detail right. Such as being set in Rome. It was the only place – when I was researching a book on the Devil – where church exorcists are open about their work. According to recently reiterated papal rules, every single one of the 3,000 dioceses of the Catholic Church around the world must have, among the ranks of its priests, a trained exorcist, but their identity is cloaked in secrecy. When I asked to interview one anywhere in Britain, I was told I would have to demonstrate prima facie evidence of possession first. Which, however thorough my research, would have been stretching it a bit. That is when I discovered that in Rome, the rules are rather different and ended up face-to-face with Father Gabriele.

The Rite is based on the experiences of Father Gary Thomas from Saratoga, California, a parish priest in suburban Silicon Valley who was dispatched to Rome in 2005 by his bishop for training so he could fill the vacancy for a diocesan exorcist. He arrived deeply distrustful of talk of the Devil, and like Father Michael in the film, was sent off to meet an old hand. In interviews, he hasn't named the senior exorcist in question, and any passing similarity with Father Gabriele has to be tempered by the Hopkins character being portrayed as having his own doubts about the reality of the Devil, not a position my interviewee had ever adopted. Indeed last year he made headlines when he produced a memoir claiming that Satan was at work even in the corridors of the Vatican itself.

The publication of that book caused a few blushes among the papal entourage. In the modern church, you see, it is just not the done thing to mention the Devil. The figure who looms so large in the gospels, whose horned, scaly, terrifying face adorned the walls of many a medieval church in scenes of the harrowing of hell, and who has inspired artists from Dante and Bosch through Milton and Byron and on to Bulgakov and CS Lewis, is now rarely mentioned from the pulpit.

The last Pope to speak at any length on the Devil was Paul VI in 1972. In an address (which Father Gabriele quotes from at length during our meeting), he personified evil in the figure of the Devil as "an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting". By contrast, Pope John Paul II, in the 27 years of his reign, made only two glancing references to Satan, both times in larger contexts. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the comprehensive rulebook that John Paul published in 1993, the Devil figures in only a handful of the 3,000 entries, and then simply as a "seductive voice" luring humankind astray.

The logic behind this vow of silence is plain. Church leaders don't like mentioning the Devil in case it makes them sound medieval, superstitious or out of touch. There is also a smattering of remorse in there for the crimes that the Church has committed down the centuries by invoking the real presence of the Devil. When the Inquisition was torturing and murdering those who dared to disagree with the papal line, its victims (Jews, women, pagans alike) were usually presented as being in league with Satan.

Yet even in 2011, the Devil is not wholly disowned by the church that did so much more than any other institution to make him seem frighteningly flesh and blood. He remains part of Catholicism but is now treated like the disreputable relative with a dark past who the family prefers to keep shut away. Hence the silence that surrounds the work of exorcists. It is hard to downplay talk of the Devil in public when you are simultaneously maintaining a network of diocesan exorcists around the world.

This is an ambiguity the Church has long lived with. John Paul II, for all his public reticence about Satan, nevertheless managed in 1982 to carry out an exorcism himself on a disturbed young woman, an episode recalled in My Six Popes, the autobiography published in 1993 by the retired head of his household, French Cardinal Jacques Martin.

And it is not just church leaders who are in two minds about the Devil. However much I could rationally trace the development of the character of the Devil as a theological, historical, artist and church-political construct, a shorthand explanation for what many regard as the evil abroad in the world, in that moment when I was sitting opposite Father Gabriele in his office in Rome, and he started talking about the Devil possessing the media, I felt myself shifting in my chair. Was he about to attempt an exorcism on me? And if he did, what was there to worry about because I didn't share his belief a physical incarnation of evil? His words would have no effect. But frightened I was, and I beat a hasty retreat from what I later heard described as the "delivery room", and gasped with relief when I got outside the building.

There is a part of us that remains irrationally susceptible to the idea of the Devil. Perhaps it is just those who, like me, had a traditional Catholic upbringing. My Christian Brother teachers were big on the real and imminent danger of Hell. But the enduring appeal of Satan spreads beyond my generation and my particular denomination. Politicians and public alike, when faced by a monstrous crime, are still quick to characterise its perpetrator as the Devil incarnate. Think of the descriptions routinely used of the Moors Murderess, Myra Hindley. "May She Rot in Hell," ran one headline on the day she died. Indeed, if there was ever a modern image of the Devil it was that Medusa-like picture of her taken in 1966, all blond hair, defiance, and cold, cold eyes.

Confronted with something unthinkably cruel and inhumane, we reach not for the language of psychiatry but for medieval demonology and scapegoating. As does the Church. Benedict XVI, generally as reluctant as his predecessor to mention the Devil in public, did nevertheless last June talk about the orchestrating role of "the enemy" in the paedophile priest scandal that has so damaged the Church's moral standing.

The Devil can still be a convenient get-out clause, whether it be from culpability for unspeakable crimes against children, or more mundane problems. I remember once attending a prayer group where young Evangelical Anglicans had gathered to share the trials and tribulations of their week, and how Jesus would shape their lives if they let him. "I've had a terrible few days," one twentysomething confided, "the Devil has made me spend all my money." She said it without a hint of irony or self-knowledge. She was taking no responsibility herself.

That same reaction can be glimpsed in remarks made by Father Gary Thomas, in interviews he has given to mark the release of The Rite in the United States. Since he successfully completed his training as an exorcist in Rome, he has dealt with five cases he describes as genuine possession by the Devil. His work with those individuals, he confides, has left him vulnerable himself to Satan. "My celibacy gets attacked a lot," he remarks. Rather than locate any problems he may have with the Catholic rule that priests must be celibate within, either himself or the church, Father Gary evidently prefers to externalise them and project them onto the Devil.

The connection between sex and Devil is almost as old as Christianity. Familiar figures in the medieval church iconography were incubus and succubus, copulating demons who would seduce both women and men and impregnate females with children of the Devil.

So is Satan in the 21st century being relegated to the extreme fringes of Christianity that still prefer a literal interpretation of the Bible? Apparently not. He's still right there in the mainstream churches. Indeed, in the opening titles for The Rite, the film-makers draw attention to a New York Times report on a conference of US Catholic bishops that took place in November 2010 to debate growing demand from their congregations for exorcism, and the absence of sufficient suitably-qualified priests to service them.

Unlike Father Gabriele, most of this secret army of priest-exorcists prefer to operate away from the spotlight, but for all that there is no question that the Devil is real. If they ever break cover and are confronted about their work, they have a standard response, best summed up by the 19th century French poet, Baudelaire – "the Devil's deepest wile is to persuade us that he does exist".

It is a pretty circular argument. When you counter, as Father Michael does in the early sections of The Rite, that the absence of proof of the Devil cannot be taken as proof itself, they just smile knowingly. While Father Gabriele didn't even manage a smile when I met him, I am sure the same justification was going through his head.

Peter Stanford's "Biography of the Devil" is published in paperback and e-book by Arrow

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