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

BY: John L. Allen Jr.

 

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.

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.

"People know Cardinal O'Connor has exorcists, and so they call and we go," LaBar said on a 1999 radio program. LaBar first came to prominence in 1991, when he took part in a Palm Beach, Fla., exorcism that was videotaped and later broadcast on ABC's "20/20."

LaBar said last year that his caseload is heavy in part because so few other American bishops have named exorcists. "Today if there are a half-dozen dioceses that have an officially appointed exorcist, that would be a lot," he said. "There's a growing demand, and we don't have the manpower to meet it."

Fueling the growth, observers here said, are two broad trends. The first is a rebirth of traditional forms of belief and devotion within Catholicism inspired by John Paul's papacy. The other is the Catholic charismatic movement.

Father Rufus Perea, a priest and exorcist of the Bombay, India, archdiocese who travels around the world performing exorcisms, said that the two impulses generally reinforce each other, but there are tensions.

The first meeting of exorcists in 1990, he said, was composed almost entirely of traditional exorcists wary of lay collaboration. "They didn't want to hear about any lay people practicing the ministry of deliverance," he said, "especially enthusiasts coming out of the charismatic renewal."

Fr. Perea pushed for expanded lay involvement and for a détente between the traditional exorcists and the charismatics. Today he heads a companion association, in partnership with the exorcists' group, for priests and lay people who lack an official commission from a bishop but who nevertheless offer informal prayers for deliverance.

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