Vatican confronts shortage of exorcists

Priests start 8-week study of how to distinguish, fight true demonic possession

February 18, 2005|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - The Roman Catholic Church is facing a shortage that you might not have heard about: qualified exorcists.

Yesterday, about 100 priests rose in prayer, asked St. Mary for protection, then sat down to an eight-week study of exorcism and how to distinguish and fight true demonic possession.

The course at Rome's Regina Apostolorum, a prestigious pontifical university, represents the first time a Vatican-sanctioned study at this level has been dedicated to exorcism.

In Italy, the number of official exorcists has soared over the past 20 years to between 300 and 400, church officials say. But they aren't enough to handle the avalanche of requests for help from hundreds of tormented people who believe they are possessed. In the United States, the shortage is more acute.

Only a small percentage of the afflicted are judged to be in need of exorcism. Learning how to tell the difference between demonic infiltration and other psychological or physical traumas is the main goal of the students taking the course at the Regina Apostolorum.

"When you're dealing with a reality like the devil," said the Rev. Clement Machado, 39, of Canada, "you can't just learn the theoretical. You need the pragmatic experience. ... It's such uncharted territory."

Exorcism - the use of prayer to rid a person or place of the devil or demonic spirits - has its roots in early Christianity. It fell out of a favor around the 18th century but has experienced something of a revival in the past couple of decades. The re-emergence is due in part to the current pope's belief that Satan is a real presence in daily life that must be battled.

Many exorcists avoid publicity, sensitive to the sensationalist portrayal of their practice as seen in Hollywood movies and pulp novels. That made the insights offered in the pontifical course, opened to the news media for its inaugural session only, all the more unusual.

"The biggest obstacle has been the lack of training of priests and bishops, who haven't felt sufficiently equipped to confront" what the church believes is a rising obsession with satanic cults, witchcraft and the occult, said Giuseppe Ferrari, a specialist in social-religious phenomena who lectured by videophone from Bologna.

The Rev. Gabriele Nanni, an exorcist from the Italian town of Modena, told the priest-students that medical doctors can be consulted to eliminate physical or psychological causes behind a patient's distress. The symptoms of authentic demonic possession, he said, include utter revulsion to holy symbols such as a crucifix or baptismal oils. Sometimes, he said, the patients enters a deep trance.

The cleansing ritual, he told students, must be kept simple, with much prayer and without pride in one's accomplishments.

"An exorcism is tantamount to a miracle - an extraordinary intervention of God," he said.

Nowhere is the shortage of exorcists seen as more serious than in the United States, where there are fewer than a dozen official exorcists at U.S. dioceses.

"There is a growing awareness" of the need for exorcists, said the Rev. Christopher Barak, who traveled from Lincoln, Neb., to Rome to attend the course.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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