Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) was undoubtedly the most famous Catholic exorcist of modern times. In any case, according to him, Amorth performed 60,000 exorcisms during his ministry, leading to a renewed interest in exorcism within Catholicism.
Amorth was also known for his controversial statements.
He claimed that Hitler and Stalin were possessed by the devil. In 2012, he made headlines for claiming pedophile sects operated within the Vatican.
Modern popular culture was also an affront to Amorth. He railed against Ouija boards, yoga, and Harry Potter, believing them to be gateways to the demonic.
Now, Russell Crowe’s new supernatural horror movie, The Pope’s Exorcist, fictionalizes Amorth’s exorcism ministry, adding an ancient Vatican cover-up for good measure.
Exorcism and the Church
Exorcism has been a prominent ritual of the Christian faith from its inception.
During the first few centuries, exorcism could be performed by all believers and it played a role important role in attracting outsiders to the nascent faith.
As Christianity took hold throughout the Roman Empire, exorcism shifted from a form of charismatic lay healing to a miracle performed by figures of exceptional spiritual authority. Beginning in the 4th century, the liturgy of exorcism was refined as the early Church assumed full authority over the ritual.
The use of exorcism has waxed and waned over the centuries. In the mid-20th century, many clerics thought exorcisms had taken place no space in modern Catholic theology.
Vatican II, an international conference of Catholic bishops held between 1962 and 1965, marked a step away from exorcisms when the church tried to modernize.
The 1960s and early 1970s marked a historic low point in the practice of this ritual.
The period that followed witnessed a backlash from conservative charismatic Catholicism with exorcism at the forefront. The work of Catholic exorcists such as Amorth was instrumental in legitimizing the modern practice of this ritual.
This growing popularity prompted the Vatican to launch a new series of exorcist guidelines in 1998 and increase the number of priests trained to deal with demonic possession.
While many clergy remain skeptical, there is support for exorcism at all levels of the Catholic Church. And in the past decade, the practice has become global rise in demand.
Read more: The Catholic Church’s views on exorcism have changed – a religious studies scholar explains why
What’s in an exorcism?
The Catholic Church divides exorcisms into “minor” and “major”.
A minor exorcism consists of sacraments and blessings used to treat demonic influences. The priest will usually say a prayer, incantation or litany over the afflicted. Lay people are also allowed to pray on behalf of those affected.
Usually a minor exorcism is performed on all persons baptized in the Catholic Church.
A Major Rite of Exorcism is only performed if there is a case of demonic occupation.
These rituals include readings of the Psalms and Gospel, reciting specific “exorcistic prayers”, holy water, a crucifix and performing the Sign of the Cross.
The exorcist may also use “laying on of hands, as well as breathing on the person’s face (exsufflation)”.
In this case, Hollywood’s sensational portrayal of exorcism at least gets the basics right.
The Church requires a thorough medical and psychiatric evaluation before a major exorcism can be performed. Canon lawthe law governing the church dictates that exorcisms may only be performed with the “express consent” of the local normalan ecclesiastical official who can execute these laws.
However, Amorth felt that the need for exorcising demons was so great that he advocated that all Catholic clergy be allowed to perform major exorcisms without obtaining permission.
Amorth seems to have had carte blanche in fulfilling his exorcism ministry.
Read more: Exorcism – how does it work and why is it on the rise?
Amorth led a colorful life. As a teenager, he was part of the Italian resistance against the Nazis and their fascist collaborators. After the war he studied law and was briefly deputy to the future Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.
In 1946 he joined the Saint Paul Society and worked as a journalist for Catholic media.
Amorth’s exorcism ministry did not formally begin until he was 61 and was unexpectedly appointed exorcist of the Diocese of Rome in 1986. Father Candido Amantini.
In the early 1990s, Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists, and became the longtime president. The association received Vatican approval in 2014 and now holds a biennial exorcism conference.
Amorth’s claim to have performed more than 60,000 exorcisms requires further investigation. In his biography An exorcist tells his story Amorth clarified that an exorcism was an individual prayer or ritual ranging from “a few minutes” to “many hours”. As a result, he was able to perform dozens of exorcisms a day, mostly on troubled souls who appeared on his doorstep.
By Amorth’s own admission, only 100 of the exorcisms he performed were for outright demonic occupation.
Amorth showed a rather arrogant attitude towards exorcism. In his biography he wrote “an unnecessary exorcism never harmed anyone”.
He also outlined that the ritual itself was diagnostic. “Only through the exorcism itself can we determine with certainty whether there is a satanic influence,” he said.
This rationale explains Amorth’s impressive exorcism record.
An enduring archetype
Amorth is the ideal figure for dramatization. He neatly embodies the archetype of the Catholic exorcist: the courageous man of faith who rescues tortured souls from the clutches of the devil.
This archetype persists. It represents a traditional form of spiritual authority rarely seen in our modern society. If an individual has the power to cast out demons, it can be seen as an affirmation of their faith, the devil and God.
As long as movies like The Pope’s Exorcist continue to perpetuate the effectiveness of the Catholic Church against demonic incursion, exorcism will continue to be a viable spiritual practice for the foreseeable future.
Read more: Dealing with the devil has long been a part of medicine