Exorcism: To Hell, and Back

Once in decline, the Catholic rite of exorcism is now undergoing a revival, and the ranks of exorcists are swelling

Excerpted with permission of National Catholic Reporter.



At 73, Rome's Father Gabriele Amorth, bald and with a face whose deep crevices suggest wisdom, looks a bit like Yoda, the diminutive sage who trained Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi knight in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Amorth, too, is keeper of an ancient craft in a cosmic battle against evil.

Fr. Amorth's apprentices, however, wield prayer books and holy water rather than light sabers. "Don Gabriele," as the priest is known in Rome, is the official exorcist for the pope's diocese, and the leading apostle for what he and others say is a revival in the practice of exorcism in the Western church.

The resurgence was evident at a weeklong mid-July conference in Rome of the International Association of Exorcists, a group Amorth co-founded in 1993. Their first meeting seven years ago brought together just six Catholic exorcists. This summer, more than 200 exorcists and their lay assistants showed up from all parts of the globe.

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The practice of exorcism reaches deep into Catholic tradition. The word comes from a Greek term meaning "to pray or ask deeply," and originally it had nothing to do with expelling demons. Jesus himself is "exorcised"--asked to do something--twice in the New Testament, once by the high priest (Matthew 26:63) and once by the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-40). In the early Christian church, however, this term came to mean the practice of casting out evil spirits. The practice has waxed and waned throughout Christian history.

Polls show that surprising numbers of people remain open to the practice. A 1999 Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey concluded that almost 50% of Americans believe people are sometimes inhabited by the devil.

The most renowned American exorcist, Father James LaBar of the New York archdiocese, believes the movement is gathering steam. LaBar, appointed by the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York, is part of a five-person team from that archdiocese that travels the country responding to exorcism requests. The group handled more than 25 cases last year.

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