Father Gabriele Amorth
Exorcist who was recognised by the Vatican, detected the sulphur breath of the Devil in 'Harry Potter' and yoga
Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30
Father Gabriele Amorth, who has died aged 91, was the Catholic Church's best-known and most controversial exorcist, and honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he co-founded in 1990.
While modern Christians have tended to sideline the Devil as an embarrassing reminder of a past when the Church used too much stick and not enough carrot in spreading its message, the Vatican never dismantled its medieval network of exorcists in every diocese. Most toiled away in obscurity - but not the outspoken Father Amorth. His book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, became a bestseller.
The Catholic journalist Cristina Odone described Amorth as a caricature from the Protestant Truth Society who deserved "the special kind of censorship that only the Catholic Church can impose: life in a Trappist monastery".
Although his claims that Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin (and, more recently, Isil) were possessed by the Devil raised few eyebrows, there were protests in 2011 when he decreed that yoga was the Devil's work.
He also railed against Harry Potter, claiming that JK Rowling's perennially popular books encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry.
"In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses," he said.
In fact, some of his views were not so far out of line with Vatican orthodoxy. In 1999 the future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy, had issued a document warning Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, transcendental meditation and other "Eastern" practices on the ground that they could "degenerate into a cult of the body" that debases Christian prayer.
But other pronouncements caused embarrassment - such as his claim that Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican employee who had gone missing in Rome in June 1983, had been kidnapped for sex parties involving Vatican police and foreign diplomats, and later murdered.
Meanwhile some felt that his contention that the sex abuse scandals which had engulfed the Church in recent years were proof that the Antichrist was waging war against the Holy See provided too easy a moral escape hatch for priestly abusers. The possessed person, Father Amorth argued, "isn't a bad person, only a suffering one".
Father Amorth claimed to have carried out between 70,000 and 160,000 exorcisms - often performing the rite several times with one person - and women, it seemed, were especially vulnerable.
When in 1996 it was reported that of the 40 or so exorcisms carried out in Rome every week, around 80pc of the "possessed" were middle-aged, middle-class women, he explained that women were "more vulnerable because they are the ones who mostly go to see clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, attend seances and belong to satanic sects", speculating that "it could be that the Devil wants to use them to get at men like Eve did to Adam".
Father Amorth believed that people possessed by Satan tended to vomit pieces of iron and shards of glass and had a collection of regurgitated bits and bobs - nails, keys, chains, plastic figurines - to prove it. During one session, he recalled, "the Devil told a woman that he would make her spit out a transistor radio, and lo and behold she started spitting out bits and pieces of a radio... Such things are rare, but they happen."
He had seen possessed victims levitate, and he credited the 1973 horror film The Exorcist with giving a "substantially exact" representation of what it was like to be possessed by Satan.
Even those who dismiss exorcism as "mumbo jumbo" could see some value in Father Amorth's services. He had only come across about 100 cases of genuine possession, he claimed. Most of his clients were psychiatric cases, whom he refused to see unless they had seen a doctor first and whom he often treated in consultation with psychiatrists.
"Most times there's no actual diabolical presence, and my job lies in suggesting [to] those that come to me to live a life of faith and prayer," he explained. "And this is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil's ills."
Gabriele Amorth was born in the northern Italian city of Modena on May 1 1925. His father and grandfather were lawyers. As a teenager he fought in the Italian resistance (days before his death he was awarded the Medal of Liberation by the prefect of Rome in recognition of the "important role" he played in the struggle against the Nazis). After the war he studied Law and was briefly deputy to the future Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti in the Young Christian Democrats.
Father Amorth's calling, though, was the Church. He entered the Society of St Paul in 1946 (after meeting its founder, Giacomo Alberione) and was ordained in 1951. It was many years later, in the mid-1980s, that he became an exorcist at the request of his bishop, previously working as a journalist for Catholic media. In 1985 he was appointed exorcist of the diocese of Rome by Cardinal Ugo Poletti. Five years later he founded, with other priests, the International Association of Exorcists, and led it until 2000.
In his book An Exorcist Tells His Story, Father Amorth described his life as a hard one, spent misunderstood and marginalised, although never wholly disowned, by his own Church. In recent years, however, interest in and demand for exorcism has experienced a worldwide boom, leading the Vatican in 1998 to publish a new set of guidelines replacing a manual in use since 1624, and to increase the number of priests trained to tackle the phenomenon.
Father Amorth was a deeply traditional figure, out of step with many in the Church - though not with Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, both of whom were reported to have performed exorcisms - or with the present Pope Francis. In 2014 the International Association of Exorcists was officially recognised by the Vatican.
In one of his last interviews at the end of last year, Father Amorth told the magazine Faithful Insight that the world had forgotten God: "We see it in laws that go totally against nature such as divorce, abortion, 'gay marriage'." God would soon "admonish humanity in a very powerful manner," he warned. "He knows how to remind us of His presence."
Father Gabriele Amorth died on September 16.