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.
Topics under discussion at the exorcists' meeting in Rome would have surprised, possibly even disturbed, Catholics who learn about church affairs largely from Sunday homilies or mainstream journals.
Hot debate, for example, surrounded the question of whether the souls of people who die in mortal sin are capable of possessing the living. Attendees were also interested in questions of technique, something Fr. Amorth covered extensively in his 1990 book, "An Exorcist Tells His Story." There he describes forcing demons to allow people to vomit up objects such as locks of hair and wooden dolls (the results of sorcery), and writes that sometimes one can detect the presence of a demon in people by secretly preparing their food using holy water and watching their reaction.
Father Gregory Planchak, a priest of the Greek Catholic rite in the Ukraine, said that Eastern Christianity in both its Orthodox and Catholic forms has an unbroken tradition of exorcism. "We never stopped, unlike the church in the West, which virtually abandoned the practice 200 years ago," he said. Planchak also said Western theologians have a harder time with demonic phenomena than the Eastern Orthodox theologians do: "Eastern theology comes from spiritual experience, including the visions of saints. It is mystical theology, so it's easier to account for this sort of thing."Like most of his exorcist colleagues, Fr. Perea said that it was a spiritual experience, rather than intellectual conviction, that led him into this work. In 1976, two women came to him complaining of possession, and he began to pray for them.
"One of the two women, a very religious person who always had a rosary in her hand, was flung to the ground," Fr. Perea said. "The evil one began to speak, I could see the eyes full of hatred. This woman wanted to jump at me to catch my throat, asking me why have you come here, telling me to go back to Bombay. I began to pray in tongues. Suddenly, her face changed, it became an angelic face. Her hands, which had been like claws wanting to hurt me, were now raised in praise."
Fr. Planchak said witnessing such an exorcism can cure theological skepticism. "Once you have seen it with your own eyes, you will never be the same," he said.
Despite the conceptual gulf that sometimes separates exorcists from other constituencies in the church, there is at least one point of common ground: occasional frustration with bishops perceived as unsupportive.
"Jesus gave a very precise mandate to the apostles: Preach the Gospel, cast out demons, and heal the sick. Every bishop has the responsibility to do these three things," Fr. Amorth said. "If they don't do it, they betray the Gospel."
Fr. Amorth has also blamed Western theologians for a decline in exorcism. Yet several leading American Catholic theologians said they take the idea seriously.
"There is such a growing awareness of the spiritual among ordinary folk, belief in angels, miracles, and so on, that believing that evil can be incarnated or possess someone is not wholly unthinkable," said Capuchin Father Ed Foley of Chicago's Catholic Theological Union.
Jesuit Father Tom Reese, editor of America magazine, seemed to sum up the dominant reaction. "I am not into exorcisms or evil spirits," he said, "but I also recall Shakespeare: 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'""