This year, the Catholic Church’s popular conference on the ministry of exorcism has some new attendees: clergy from other Christian denominations.
At the 14th annual “Course on Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation,” held this week in Rome, religious representatives from Lutheran, Anglican, Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal churches are gathering with Catholics for in-depth discussions about expelling evil.
“This is the first time that different denominations have come together to compare their experiences on exorcisms,” say Father Pedro Barrajon, a summit organizer. “The idea is to help each other, to establish best practices if you will.” Although the Catholic Church “is most associated with exorcisms because of films like The Exorcist,” Barrajon says, other religions—Christian and non-Christian—also perform them.
Courses Take a Multidisciplinary Approach
The 250 clerics from 40 different nations are taking classes such as “Angels and Demons in the Sacred Scriptures,” “The Historical Origins of the Rite of Exorcism,” and “The Symbology of Occult and Satanic Rituals.” As proof of the issue’s complexity, courses extend well beyond religion to cover medical, psychological, social, legal, criminological, symbolic and pharmacological issues.
An ecumenical roundtable provides opportunities to discuss “shared experiences” related to this ancient ritual, says Barrajon. “Expelling the devil goes back to the earliest origins of the Christian Church,” he notes. “The Catholic rite is very structured, whereas some of the other churches are more creative; they don’t use a precise format.”
Benjamin McEntire, a Protestant priest from Alaska who’s attending the summit, says he’s eager “to understand the Catholic perspective” on exorcisms. “We are fighting the same enemy in the name of the Lord,” he says, “even if there are some parts of the Anglican Church that have lost belief in Satan.” (Five year ago, the Church of England removed mention of the devil from its baptismal vow.)
In 2014, the Catholic Church formally recognized exorcism under Canon Law and approved an International Association of Exorcists. Its leader, the Rev. Francesco Bamonte, calls exorcism “a form of charity that benefits those who suffer.” He has lamented “widespread ignorance” of supernatural phenomena and urges seminary instructors to teach about “the real existence, substance and nature of the demonic world.”
Pope Francis often speaks about Satan as a real being, as opposed to merely an idea or metaphor. In a 2017 message, he said, “Many people say: ‘But why talk about the devil, which is an ancient thing? The devil does not exist.’ But look at what the Gospel teaches you.” Referring to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, the pope added that “Jesus has already fought this temptation for us.”
In 2013, there was speculation that Pope Francis performed an exorcism on a wheelchair-bound visitor, but the Vatican said he was merely praying for healing.
In This Battle, Spiritual Support Is Key
In conjunction with this year’s summit, an initiative is underway to pinpoint the number of existing exorcists, as well as the number of requests for their services. Previously, sources have indicated that about half a million people ask for such deliverance every year. And an estimated 13 million Italians—more than one-fourth the country’s total adult population—have reportedly sought help from the occult (mediums, sorcerers, tarot card readers and so on).
Catholic officials admit a large proportion of people who claim to be possessed are actually mentally ill. But they say the church still has a responsibility to step in and help them.
Father Benigno Palilla, an Italian exorcist, says clergy must not “deny…spiritual assistance” to people who feel troubled or possessed but don’t show signs of demonic influence. Prayer and worship can provide “peace and comfort,” Palilla says, and keep people from seeking out “witch doctors.”
“All too often these people end up not finding that comfort and support that they need in the church,” says Palilla, which is why they turn to the occult. “Our task as exorcists is not just to perform exorcisms on those who are possessed but also to embrace those people who think they are victims of demonic activity, but in reality, they are not.”