The battle fought by the Catholic Church against the devil dates back thousands of years. The chosen troops of a timeless clash are the exorcists, priests tasked with the responsibility of countering evil practices. There are still too few, considering that those registered in the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) – the only body officially recognized by the Vatican in this field – amount to less than five hundred.
There are 404 exorcists worldwide, in addition to 124 auxiliaries and an unidentified number of exorcists that are not IAE registered members.
Moreover, there are no precise figures on the number of people seeking their help every year. Furthermore, there is no evidence of the fact that the South of Italy is ignorant and superstitious or that it ranks first in terms of requests of exorcism, notably by woman with a medium to low cultural background. In fact, reality is quite different, marked by no significant differences at national level.
The presence in dioceses. In Italy there are 240 practising exorcists and 62 auxiliaries, along with several dozen who are not registered members of IAE – the Association set up by Fr Gabriele Amorth in the early 1990s, officially approved by the Congregation for the Clergy in 2014.
The small numbers of ordained ministers who preside over the Country’s 225 dioceses are called to address an increasing demand triggered by surging occultism and Satanism. The latter is widespread also in large urban centres, with extended ramifications within the strong powers. The bishops have acknowledged the urgent need to erect a barrier against the spread of evil, however, since in most cases they cannot practice the ministry in first person, they ensured the presence of one or more priests licensed to perform exorcisms in every diocese.
In their ministry they are supported by the auxiliaries, namely, trained lay Catholics and priests without a mandate. The main hurdles registered by the bishops are not confined to prejudice: in many cases they experience difficulties in identifying the appropriate candidate. In fact, given the complex assignment, there is need for a person with a solid faith and scrupulous spiritual care, with years of experience in the ministry and available to support an expert exorcist.
The situation worldwide. The situation out of Italy – where the overall picture is far from positive – is just as bad. Exception made for France, that has a high number of exorcists but a low number of practised exorcisms, Poland is the European Country that counts 120 exorcists (none of whom are IAE members but they are directly connected with the Bishops’ Conference), followed by the United Kingdom (28 exorcists, 4 auxiliaries), Spain (15 and 9), the Czech Republic and Slovakia (9 and 1), Lithuania (8 and 6), Portugal (5 and 3). Outside of Europe, Mexico counts almost 120 exorcists, the United States 21 – other Countries are marked by small numbers, as regards IAE members. For Father Francesco Bamonte, exorcist in the diocese of Rome, IAE chairman, “serious permanent formation coupled by full compliance to liturgical and pastoral regulations, is crucial.” Thus nothing is left to chance. Rather, everything is done in strict compliance with the instructions of the Church:
“The ministry of the exorcist cannot be practiced with superficiality and approximation or as if it were a hobby or a game. Exorcism is a struggle, sometimes a very tough one, against the power of Satan. It is a struggle – said Fr. Bamonte – that we cannot sustain with our sole forces. It requires profound union with the Cross of Christ.”
There are four signs of diabolic possession: to speak fluently otherwise unknown languages or to understand the person that is speaking them; to be cognizant of occult practices; to display huge strength compared to the person’s age or physical condition; to nurture repulsion towards the sacred realm.
Cooperation with physicians and psychologists, “formed also in the spiritual sphere” and supported by IAE in the practice of the ministry, is decisive. In fact, in many cases the symptoms are linked to health disorders. However, while the rules are on paper, in real life situations difficulties abound. In order to overcome this situation IAE is compiling a set of “Guidelines for the correct practice of the ministry of exorcism” consisting in a compendium of the key issues, understood as a handbook that can be used as frame of reference in all circumstances. The goal is to prevent dubious behaviours on the part of exorcists who practiced their ministry in an intentionally spectacular or ambiguous manner, or adopting questionable methods or approaches that don’t comply with the Church’s norms regulating the practice of the ministry. It is the case of the recent documentary-film “Free me”, which, IAE wrote in a release, is distant from the Church’s provisions and recommendations in the field of exorcism.”
In fact, the same priests who are the protagonists of the film, “don’t represent Catholic doctrine nor the practice of exorcism established by the Catholic Church.” In many scenes the victims are held by their hair, with buckets full of blessed water poured on their heads or handfuls of salt thrown in their face.