The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has "opened the window" to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism said yesterday.
The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast evil out from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.
The conference, "Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation", has also attracted psychiatrists, sociologists, doctors and criminologists in what the Church called a "multi-disciplinary" approach to exorcisms.
Giuseppe Ferrari, from GRIS, a Catholic research group that organised the conference, said there was an ever-growing need for priests to be trained to perform exorcisms.
"We live in a disenchanted society, a secularised world that thought it was being emancipated, but where religion is being thrown out and the window is being opened to superstition and irrationality," said Mr Ferrari.
The abandonment of religion "inevitably leads people to ask questions about the existence of evil and its origins", he said.
About 250 priests were trained as exorcists in Italy, but many more were needed, the conference organisers claimed.
"Just in the dioceses of Rome, around a third of calls that are received are requests for the services of an exorcist," said Fr Cesar Truqui, a priest and exorcist from Switzerland and a member of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Catholic order. In the popular imagination, exorcisms evoke images of black-clad priests holding aloft silver crucifixes while trying to rid frothing, wild-eyed victims of satanic possession.
The Church tries to play down the more lurid associations but at the same time insists that the Devil exists and must be fought on a daily basis.
"Exploring the theme of demonic possession does not mean causing general paranoia, but creating awareness of the existence of the Devil and of the possibility of possession," Fr Truqui told Vatican Radio.
"It happens rarely but you can fight it with God, with prayer, with Marian devotion."
Demonic possession manifests itself in people babbling in foreign languages, shaking uncontrollably and vomiting nails, pieces of metal and shards of glass, according to those who believe in the phenomenon.
Those thought to be possessed are supposed to undergo the official rite of exorcism, which involves a consecrated priest invoking the name of God, as well as various saints, to cast out their demons.
Pope Francis has frequently alluded to the Devil in his homilies and addresses since being elected to succeed Benedict XVI last March. In a homily this week, he said that the Devil was behind the persecution of early Christian martyrs, who were murdered for their faith.
The "struggle between God and the Devil" was constant and ongoing, he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)