Pope Francis appears to have performed an exorcism on a wheelchair-bound young man who believers in the practice claim was possessed by evil.
According to TV2000, a Catholic television channel, the act was carried out in St Peter's Square after Mass on Sunday.
Smiling broadly, the Pope initially shook the man's hand, but the South American pontiff's expression changed dramatically after a priest from the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative order, leaned in close and spoke a few words to him.
With a more serious expression on his face, Francis placed both hands on the man's head for 15 seconds.
The pilgrim then convulsed briefly and emitted a long sigh. His body went limp and his mouth dropped open.
"Exorcists who have seen the footage have no doubt – this was a prayer for liberation from evil, an actual exorcism," TV2000 reported.
The station gathered a panel of clergy specialising in exorcisms who scrutinised the footage and concluded that the Pope had performed an exorcism.
The Vatican downplayed the incident, although it used ambiguous language that did not deny altogether that Francis had tried to rid the man of evil.
"The Holy Father did not intend to carry out any exorcism," said Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
"Instead, as he often does for sick and suffering people, he simply intended to pray for a person who was presented to him."
Catholic priests who have trained as exorcists have to follow a ritual known as 'De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam', or 'Of exorcisms and certain supplications', according to guidelines laid down by the church.
The 84-page document was drawn up in 1998 and is an update on an exorcism rite which was compiled in 1614. (© Daily Telegraph, London)