'Rise in occult' spurs church to train exorcists
Forty years after The Exorcist scared the wits out of cinema audiences around the world, the Catholic Church is training up a new generation of priests to meet a growing demand for exorcism.
Dioceses across Italy, as well as in countries such as Spain, are increasing the number of priests schooled in administering the rite of exorcism, fabled to rid people of possession by the Devil.
The rise in demonic cases is a result of more people dabbling in practices such as black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija boards, often exploring the dark arts with the help of information readily found on the internet, the church said.
The increase in the number of priests being trained to tackle the phenomenon is also an effort by the church to sideline unauthorised, self-proclaimed exorcists, and its tacit recognition that belief in Satan, once regarded by Catholic progressives as an embarrassment, is still very much alive.
The trend comes four decades after the 1973 release of The Exorcist, the American horror film based on the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl and attempts to exorcise her by two priests.
The diocese of Milan recently nominated seven new exorcists, the bishop of Naples appointed three new ones a couple of years ago and the Catholic Church in Sardinia sent three priests for exorcism training in Rome, amid concern that the Mediterranean island, particularly its mountainous, tradition-bound interior, is a hotbed of occultism.
In Spain, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, the archbishop of Madrid, chose eight priests to undergo special training in May to confront what he described as "an unprecedented rise" in cases of "demonic possession".
The church in Spain was coming across many cases that "go beyond the competence of psychologists" and they were occurring with "a striking frequency", the archbishop said.
"Diabolical possessions are on the increase as a result of people subscribing to occultism," said Fr Francesco Bamonte, the president of the Italy-based International Association for Exorcists.
The association was founded in 1993 by Fr Gabriele Amorth, who served as the Vatican's chief exorcist and claims to have conducted thousands of exorcisms.
He has written several books on the subject, including The Last Exorcist -- My Fight Against Satan.
During the papacy of Benedict XVI, he said that the sex abuse scandals which engulfed the church in the US, Ireland, Australia and other countries were proof that the Antichrist was waging a war against the Holy See.
The church insists that the majority of people who claim to be possessed by the Devil are suffering from a variety of mental health issues, from paranoia to depression. Priests generally advise them to seek medical help.
But in a few cases, it is judged that the person really has been taken over by evil, and an exorcism is required.
In May it was claimed that Pope Francis had performed an exorcism during a Mass in St Peter's Square.
Television images show him laying his hands on a wheelchair-bound man, who appears to go into convulsions with his mouth open before slumping down into his chair.
The encounter was shown by TV2000, which quoted experts as saying that there was no doubt the Pope had performed an exorcism.
Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, later dismissed the claims, saying Pope Francis "did not intend" to perform an exorcism -- an ambivalently worded denial that left many convinced that he had indeed done so.