Fr. Gabriele Amorth isn’t just playing devil’s advocate. The 89-year-old Italian Paulist organized the International Association of Exorcists in the 1980s, and has been one of the world’s most visible Roman Catholic exorcists in his own right for over thirty years. He has also been something of an enigma within the church; while Pope John Paul II himself reportedly performed at least two exorcisms, the claim that demonic possession has historically been a primitive interpretation of severe mental illness, and exorcism a potentially harmful response to it, is pretty hard to dispute. Extricating the rite of exorcism and trying to salvage some dignified spiritual meaning from it is hard work, maybe doomed work, especially when exorcism has become an overused horror movie trope. But hundreds of priests in good standing, including Fr. Amorth, feel that it’s necessary—and the Pope agrees.
Several weeks ago, Pope Francis granted the International Association of Exorcists private juridical personality status, placing it more-or-less permanently under the authority and protection of the Vatican hierarchy. This is the most significant change to the status of exorcists within the Vatican since the Minor Order of Exorcist was initially eliminated in 1972. For people who think of him as a more secular reformer, this is a wakeup call: this Pope believes in the reality of supernatural evil, and he’s prepared to stake his reputation on that belief in a way that other recent popes haven’t.
Although it’s been given a bad rap in recent centuries, exorcism—the casting out of evil spirits—is one of the oldest religious rituals in human history, and may technically be the very oldest. It seldom takes the dramatic form it takes in movies; quite often it’s more similar to the exorcisms typically performed by Fr. Amorth, which are sacramentally similar to prayers for the sick: a private ritual centering the sign of the cross on the forehead and patience rather than a dramatic, flailing 20-minute confrontational between good and evil. It’s a humbler kind of exorcism, one that is more historically accurate—and less offensive to 21st-century sensibilities—than the stuff we generally see from filmmakers and televangelists.