Father Andrs Crdenas sat in the back of the auditorium, opened his folder and took careful notes as a Catholic cardinal with decades of experience casting demons out of possessed bodies gave a masterclass on how to yell at the devil, rid Muslims of black magic and purge Satan on your cellphone.
Fr Crdenas, a Colombian priest, wrote vigorously as the 89-year-old instructor, Cardinal Ernest Simoni, explained that although exorcisms – what he called “a spiritual scientific instrument” – can be practiced on Muslims, “they stayed Muslims after”.
Cardinal Simoni, who is Albanian, also said that fasting sometimes helped the possessed, but that often you had to play hardball with Beelzebub by saying things like “shut up, Satan”.
After jotting it all down, Fr Crdenas (36) explained he had come to Rome to learn about exorcisms “because it is a gift” he wanted to share with his parishioners back in El Espinal.
He was one of 300 Roman Catholics – mostly clerics but also lay men and women furnished with authorisation letters from their bishops – to attend the 13th annual, week-long “Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation” course that organisers hoped would recruit and train armies of potential exorcists to confront spreading demonic forces.
Participants paid about US$372 to attend the sessions, which were sponsored by conservative Catholic groups and held at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum, run by the conservative Legionaries of Christ religious order. The would-be exorcists blamed the Internet and atheism for what they see as a spike in evil, but the urgency evident in the course also seemed to have something to do with a growing conservative view that the church has gone astray under Pope Francis, and that end times had drawn nigh. The pope recently had conservative heads spinning when he was quoted, incorrectly according to the Vatican, by an Italian reporter with credibility issues as not believing in hell.
“Beyond what is tolerable,” American cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader of the conservative resistance to Pope Francis, said at the time.
In fact, the pope often speaks about the devil. In this month’s apostolic exhortation (“Rejoice and be glad”), he wrote that while in biblical times, “epilepsy, for example, could easily be confused with demonic possession”, the faithful should not conclude “that all the cases related in the Gospel had to do with psychological disorders and hence that the devil does not exist or is not at work”.
Fr Crdenas had no doubts about the pope’s belief in the devil. Neither did Cardinal Simoni, who has encountered evil first-hand, surviving decades in prisons and work camps for practising his faith under the Albanian Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.
During Monday’s keynote address, the cardinal answered the questions of Fr Crdenas’ fellow priests, like one from a French priest who asked him to share his exorcising secrets.
“Pray without interruption,” the cardinal said, reminding the audience that “more than anything, chastity” was key.
Asked if he preferred the ancient ritual or the new Vatican norms introduced in 1999, Cardinal Simoni said: “Jesus knows all the languages.”
Another priest asked how to tell the difference between bipolar and possessed personalities. “It’s important to differentiate between psychopathic illnesses, neurasthenia, pathologies,” the cardinal said. “Satan you can recognise.”
“This theme will be tackled on Tuesday afternoon,” interjected Professor Giuseppe Ferrari, an organiser of the course, who runs a socio-religious research group.
At that, Fr Crdenas perused his blue programme, illustrated with Raphael’s “Transfiguration”. On Tuesday, he could listen to an exorcist lecture on “The Prayer of Liberation, a Theological and Pastoral Approach” or “The Auxiliary Exorcist: Skills and Duties”.
On Wednesday, there was “Magical, Esoteric and Occult Links to Some Alternative and Energy-giving Therapies”, followed by Friday’s “The Exorcist: Life, Choices and Mistake”. But he was especially interested in Wednesday’s talk on “Witchcraft in Africa”.
The Vatican has had an uncomfortable relationship with some of its best-known African exorcists.
Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia gained notoriety as a healer and exorcist in the 1990s, when he lived in Italy and where he was known as the “witchdoctor bishop”.
He later married a Korean woman at a group wedding presided over by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and was excommunicated for ordaining four married men as priests.
The Vatican formally recognised an International Association of Exorcists in 2014, which keeps its 250 or so members updated on the latest best practices in confronting the devil.
The death in 2016 of Father Gabriele Amorth, Italy’s most famous demon remover, prompted a new national outcry for recruits. An exorcism documentary, “Libera Nos”, won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2016. The film follows a rotund Sicilian priest in a friar’s frock and wool hat; in one scene, he yanks on the bangs of a woman who grunts at his command that she love her neighbours.
In a separate cellphone conversation in the film with a possessed woman, the priest implores, “I exorcise you, Satan.” He then signs off with, “OK, talk soon,” and “say hello to your husband for me.”
(“It’s a good way to learn how not to do an exorcism,” Prof Ferrari said.)
In the seminar on Monday, Cardinal Simoni reported dramatic successes. Asked by one priest how he knew if an exorcism had worked, he responded, “Ah, you can see it immediately,” explaining that one possessed person went from jumping up and down and “keeping three or four men busy” to rising with a “joyous smile”.
“Your exorcisms are very effective, it seems,” said Prof Ferrari, who then told the crowd: “We will meet back here after the coffee break.”
The students headed for a long table with snacks and soda while reporters pressed Cardinal Simoni about conducting exorcisms by cellphone, which is technically banned by church law. (He had done them “100, 1 000 times” he said.)
Fr Crdenas waited in the aisle, his cellphone out, hoping to get a picture of himself with the cardinal. But the elderly exorcist shuffled past, leaving the Colombian grumbling, though not demonically.
Turning back to the topic at hand, Fr Crdenas warned that black magic can be transmitted through screens (“American films are also a problem”), that demons enter the body “through the back of the brain”, and that early traumas, like sexual abuse, can make a person vulnerable to homosexuality and the demons who, in grave cases, cause suicidal or violent tendencies and need to be chased away.
A few feet away, Rev Joseph Poggemeyer, from Toledo, Ohio, said exorcists needed to confront the evil spread on the Internet. He said that every diocese should have an exorcist on hand, but that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its “confusion” had eroded exorcism expertise and deprived seminarians of instruction in demonology.
“That was simply lost,” he said. “A lot of dioceses in the United States haven’t had exorcists for a very long time.”
Organisers called the priests back in for a lesson on a bishop’s role in exorcism, after which they broke for lunch.
While budding exorcists waited in line for pasta behind texting students, or discussed the manifestations of pure evil over yogurt, Prof Ferrari said he hoped to invite the pope’s preferred exorcist, a Lutheran, to next year’s conference.
Replenished, Fr Crdenas and the others returned to the basement hall for the afternoon session, “Exorcism as a Ministry of Mercy and Consolation Amid the Bewilderment of Contemporary Society”.
It was led by Archbishop Luigi Negri, who made news in 2015 when he was overheard on a train wishing for the death of Pope Francis. The Pontiff subsequently replaced him as the leader of the Ferrara Archdiocese.
On Monday, Archbishop Negri warned the priests what dark forces they would be up against.
“The actor of this evil – this diabolical and evil entity,” he explained, “is greater than any single man.” – The New York Times.
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