Thursday, October 27, 2016
Exorcism in Italy
"That is a possessed woman there," says Catholic priest Vincenzo Taraborelli as he points up to an 18th Century fresco in his Roman church. "They're holding her with her mouth open. She has little devils coming out of her body. She's being freed." It is a scene the 79-year-old priest says he knows well. For the past 27 years, Father Taraborelli has performed exorcisms - the Catholic rite of expelling evil spirits.
He stumbled into the job when a fellow priest needed help. "I didn't know what it was, I hadn't studied it," the father says. "He told me what to do. I was totally ignorant." He has since become one of Rome's busiest exorcists, and the Catholic Church is struggling to find younger successors.
Working three days a week from a windowless room at the back of his church near the Vatican, he often sees up to 30 people every day. "Before doing exorcisms I urge people to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and I ask them to bring me their prognosis. I'm in touch with many psychologists who send their patients here."
On one side of the room, a cabinet is filled with hundreds of small statues of angels. In a drawer, he keeps a supply of sweets to hand out to his visitors. On the wall is an official document showing his qualification as an exorcist.
Father Taraborelli's desk is crowded with papers, photos, and prayer books. He sits in a simple chair; those who come to see him sit opposite him. He said, "Before doing exorcisms I urge people to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I ask them to bring me their prognosis. First of all, I get the room ready," he says. "Then if the person is not doing well, I try to calm them down reassure them. I invite them to join me in prayer. But many of them when they come here are already disturbed."
He looks through his copy of the Catholic Church's exorcism rites. He's had to tape it back together to stop it from falling apart. Amidst the pile of papers on his desk, he finds the cross he uses to expel evil spirits.
His most notable case involved a married woman he treated for 13 years. "Another man, who was a Satanist, wanted her," he remembers. "She refused. So this man told her: 'You'll pay for this.' He cast so-called spells to attract her to him, twice a week.
"Then they came to me, in this room. I started to pray, and she went into a trance. She would blurt out insults, blasphemies. I quickly understood she was possessed. As the rite continued, she started feeling worse and worse. So when I told the devil: 'In the name of Jesus, I order you to go away', she started to vomit little metal pins, five at a time. Aside from pins she would also vomit hair braids, little stones, pieces of wood. It sounds like something from another world right? Instead, it's something from this world."
Within the Catholic Church, the concept of possession by demons is an accepted belief.
Portrait of Satan
It is sometimes used to explain murderous behavior, as in the recent murder of 85-year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel in his church in the French city of Rouen in July. When two Islamist militants acting in the name of jihadist group Islamic State (ISIS) burst into the church and stabbed Fr Hamel, he tried to fend them off, crying out "Be gone, Satan!", an apparent attempt at exorcism. In support of the priest's actions, Pope Francis accelerated the process of Father Hamel's candidacy for sainthood.
However, outside the Catholic Church, many dispute the entire basis of demonic possession and exorcism. Non-believers argue that so-called possession by evil spirits is simply a medieval superstition or myth. Those who claim to be possessed by evil spirits are people suffering from easily explicable psychological or psychiatric problems, they say.
Father Taraborelli rejects the skepticism. "Well, someone who isn't a believer doesn't believe in the devil either," he says, "But someone who believes knows that the devil exists, you can read it in the gospel. Then you only need to see how the world is nowadays. It has never been this bad. These violence acts are not human. So terrible, like ISIS."
Father Taraborelli shows no sign of wanting to give up his work and his mobile phone rings constantly. But, younger priests are not particularly attracted by the prospect of spending hours in windowless rooms, reading exorcism rites to disturbed believers. "I told the bishop that I can't find anyone willing to do this. Many of them are scared. Even priests can be scared. It's a difficult life."
The Vatican has denied claims that Pope Francis performed an exorcism, after TV images showed a man apparently reacting to him putting his hands on his head. The encounter during Sunday Mass was shown on a TV channel owned by the Italian bishops' conference.
The station quoted exorcists as saying there was "no doubt" the Pope had either performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from the devil. Its director later apologized for "having altered the truth".
The Pope's spokesman said he "did not intend to perform any exorcism" Rather as he frequently does with the sick or suffering who come his way, he simply intended to pray for a suffering person," said Federico Lombardi in a statement.
The footage shows a young man, who is in a wheelchair, opening his mouth and either screaming or breathing deeply as the Pope puts his hands on his head and prays for him during the Mass in St Peter's Square. The man then convulses and slumps in his chair.
The director of the TV station which broadcast the pictures, TV 2000, apologized for the report, saying: "I don't want to attribute to him a gesture that he didn't intend to perform." "I apologize for having altered the truth of the facts and for the people who are involved, in particular I apologise to the Holy Father," said Dino Boffo.
Religious figures in Rome had insisted the act had been an exorcism. They included the Vatican's former chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, who was quoted by Italian media as saying the act "was an exorcism alright" and that he had since performed his own exorcism on the young man, who he said was called Angelo.
Exorcism is the ancient practice of driving out demons or evil spirits from a person or place they are thought to possess. It is practiced by some Roman Catholics but treated with deep skepticism by others.
Exorcism in the U.S.
Exorcism, the ancient rite of casting out Satan and his demons from the souls of the possessed, is thriving in America and was long before recent revelations that Mother Teresa underwent one and Pope John Paul II performed them. "It is a big phenomenon," J. Gordon Melton, a Methodist minister who directs the Institute for the Study of American Religion, says of exorcisms in the United States, There is a lot of exorcism going on."
Pope John Paul II
What many might consider an archaic and obscure rite has been front-page news this year. For instance, the Catholic Archbishop of Calcutta, Henry Sebastian D'Souza, announced that he ordered an exorcism performed on Mother Teresa before she died in 1997. D'Souza said he thought the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun possibly was being attacked by the devil, and asked a priest to exorcise it.
Mother Teresa is not the only prominent Catholic figure linked to exorcism. Italian media reported that Pope John Paul II attempted to exorcise evil spirits from a 19-year-old Italian woman last year, although the Vatican said he only blessed her. The Roman Catholic Church's chief exorcist said the woman displayed superhuman strength, and that the pope's efforts did not rid her of the hostile spirit.
In America, exorcism is increasingly widespread, experts say.
Exorcism is more readily available today in the United States than perhaps ever before," writes Michael Cuneo, a sociologist at Fordham University, in his newly published book, American Exorcism. Cuneo suggests that though the hit book and movie The Exorcist brought the subject national attention in the 1970s, exorcism has grown more popular in the past two decades.
The Catholic Church has at least 10 official exorcists around the United States, nine more than a decade ago, Cuneo says. He found them reporting the kind of bizarre supernatural behavior featured in movies: levitation, mysterious scars and wounds that might form pictures or spell out hateful words, and more.
The church remains extremely cautious in approving the procedure. The vast majority of exorcisms today are performed by a variety of protestant religions, Cuneo and other experts say. "By conservative estimates, there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today, and quite possibly two or three times this many," he writes, in addition to numerous exorcisms performed by charismatic, Pentecostal and other brands of Christianity.
Some involve tying people to chairs and then trying to scream the demons out of them; others retch and curse while writhing on the floor. Some are more like therapy sessions, where counselor-exorcists discuss demons of lust and guilt along with traditional mental health concerns.
Roman Catholic exorcisms are elaborate, carefully planned rituals that take hours to complete. They can involve holy water, crucifixes, and sacred ruins, as laid out by the book, De Exorcismus et supplicationibus quibusdam, an updated exorcism manual approved by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
"There's an actual formula," says Father Joseph Scerbo, a Roman Catholic priest who heads the Association of Christian Therapists. Scerbo says actual demonic possession is extremely rare, and many may use the term incorrectly to apply to demonic affliction, which is less serious. And, Scerbo doubts Mother Teresa was the victim of full-fledged demonic possession and in need of an exorcism.
Old Exorcism Book in Latin
In contrast to Roman Catholic ritual, many protestant exorcisms are straightforward and may not appear much different from a normal prayer service. "We would not see it as any elaborate ritual," says the Rev. J.R. Hall, editor of the Pentecostal Herald and member of the United Pentecostal Church. He says an exorcism might involve nothing more than prayer and laying hands on the afflicted.
Many conservative Protestants see the devil as an active force in the everyday lives of people, and feel that exorcism is the natural way to deal with it. They might undergo several exorcisms (also called a "deliverance") a month.
New Age religions also have their own brand of exorcism, believing that spirits of the dead and other supernatural creatures routinely interfere with and sometimes possess the living, and must be told to leave.
Like many protestant groups, United Pentecostal Church members believe the Holy Spirit gives them the power of "divination" to sense when a demon is afflicting someone. Many people might be violent, depressed, or irreligious without any supernatural involvement."Through the Holy Spirit, you can tell it's more," says Hall of genuine cases of possession.
The Laying on of Hands: Fundamentalist Exorcism
Pastor Steven Waterhouse, an evangelical Christian who heads the Westcliff Bible Church in Amarillo, Texas, has written about the differences between mental illness and possession. "I think there are such things as demon influence but I think it's rare," he says. "People are too quick to diagnose demons. Human nature is plenty evil on its own."
Amateur Exorcisms Linked to Deaths
Exorcism has caused a number of real-world tragedies over the years, including several deaths.
For instance, Pentecostal ministers in San Francisco pummeled a woman to death in 1995, as they tried to drive out her demons.
In 1997, a Korean Christian woman was stomped to death in Glendale, California and in the Bronx section of New York City, a 5-year-old girl died after being forced to swallow a mixture containing ammonia and vinegar and having her mouth taped shut.
In 1998, a 17-year-old girl in Sayville, New York., was suffocated by her mother with a plastic bag, in an effort to destroy a demon inside her.
Cuneo reports that a Wisconsin woman successfully sued her psychiatrist in 1997, after he diagnosed her as diabolically possessed, and having 126 personalities, including the bride of Satan and a duck. The experience left her suicidal, she claimed.
Overall, many involved in exorcism say the prayers and rituals involved are safe and may offer some comfort to true believers who are not actually afflicted by demons. "If it's real to the person, you have to take it seriously," says Eddie Gibbs, an Anglican priest and professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "I do believe that there is an intelligence behind evil," he insists. But, he cautions: "We mustn't be gullible."