Healing Line

Healing Line

Resurgence of Exorcism in Italy

by Francis MacNutt
Jul/Aug 2007

Happily, we are rediscovering the fullness of the ministry of healing and deliverance from evil spirits. We know that there were embarrassing extremes during the 14th through the 17th centuries when preachers were fascinated with witches and witchcraft, and there was a shameful number of burnings (including Joan of Arc). Then came a massive turn–around featured by increasing skepticism about the very existence of angels (and of Satan, in particular). This skepticism is still largely with us. Since we are still learning about healing and deliverance, we should be eager to learn from anyone who might have something valuable to teach us. So when I read about a new book that has come out entitled The Vatican Exorcists (Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century)1, I quickly ordered it, and I want to share with you some of the information that I found.

The author, Tracy Wilkinson, is a reporter and is not a theologian or exorcist, and she seems to be more or less of a skeptic herself who agrees with the agnostic Italian psychiatrists who, for the most part, don’t believe in Satan (it follows they don’t believe in exorcism either). One goes so far as to call it a “scam.” Yet, Tracy is a good reporter and what she reports should interest those of us who are working to restore a balanced ministry of deliverance to the church.

The first hopeful news is that there has been a huge increase in the number of official Catholic exorcists in Italy, going up from about 20 in 1986 to 350 today. In the industrial center of Bologna, for example, there are now 10 exorcists. This is in contrast to what a friend here in the U.S. told me last week: She is a counselor and was trying to help four clients involved in “Santeria.” When she phoned the local Catholic chancery to find a priest to help with exorcism prayer, she was told they don’t believe in doing that in her diocese.

Part of the reason for the resurgence of exorcism in Italy is that thousands of Italians are now claiming that they need deliverance because of their strong belief in the power of curses and the “evil eye.” The more sophisticated theologians ascribe all this to superstition and view this renewal of exorcism as a gross exaggeration. In Italy, we find the same strong disagreement among church leaders that we also see right here in the U.S. among the authorities in almost every mainline denomination.

Several factors especially helped in making exorcism once again acceptable in Italy. The first is simply that the Catholic Church has always taught as doctrine that there is a personal Satan, although the actual practice of exorcism had fallen into disuse. Then, in recent years, an unusually forceful character, Father Gabriel Amorth, has emerged. He is now in his 80s and writes books in a confrontational style, arguing that bishops who do not provide for exorcism are seriously sinning.2

Then, too, Pope John Paul II publicly stated that he believed in the reality of exorcism. He was well–known for actually having prayed for exorcism on three public occasions. In 1987 he said, “The battle against the devil … is still being fought today, because the devil is still alive and active in the world.”3 His first two exorcisms seem to have been successful, but the third was a 19–year–old woman who went berserk at a papal audience. The Swiss guards wanted to remove her, but the Pope decided to pray with her, so they took her to a private room where he prayed with her for about half an hour, yet he failed to get rid of the demon (I would ascribe this to a lack of the necessary time). Father Amorth was also present and the next day he examined the woman, who exclaimed in a loud, booming voice, “Not even the Pope was able to defeat me!”4 The new Pope, Benedict XVI, has also indicated he is in favor of a balanced ministry of deliverance by addressing the “International Association of Exorcists,” a group founded by Amorth, whose work the Pope called an “important ministry.” So exorcism has a kind of go–ahead in the Catholic Church, even though there are a large number of theologians and scholars who do not believe in a personal demonic power. Apparently, too, there are a number of officials in the Vatican (the Curia) who believe that this surging belief in exorcism is ridiculous superstition.

So we see that, throughout the European and North American world, Christians are split on the reality of real Satanic influence. The big change is simply in the actual practice of exorcism, which in Italy has seen an extraordinary ten–fold increase. Wilkinson points out that witch burnings were prevalent in the intellectual north of Europe, while southern Europe — which is usually regarded as more emotional and superstitious — saw hardly any burnings and drownings of witches!

The next thing we can admire about the Italian exorcists is their remarkable patience and the vast amount of time they are willing to spend with their clients. Wilkinson describes, at length, the methods of four exorcists and the case histories of three clients. In our country, we see so much that is instant, including deliverance (especially on TV). In our own experience with heavy demonic infestation (such as with survivors of satanic ritual abuse), we have had to spend long hours, and it was inspiring to see that the Italian priests who minister deliverance seem to spend even more time than we do.

There is one bishop — Gamma — in Italy who is an exorcist, and he has only experienced one case of instant liberation. For him it usually takes months or years, and he has been glad whenever he sees improvement. For example, for one of his regular clients, it initially took five men to hold her down because she was so violent, but now she is less violent and can be restrained by her mother and sister alone. Bishop Gamma has five exorcist assistants to help him, because he has so much work. One exorcist, Father Taraborelli, sees 20 to 30 people a day for “blessings” and conducts three to six exorcisms a week with regular clients, who include two nuns and a seminarian. These exorcists work very hard, and it is their major spiritual ministry as priests. Their reward is to see a few totally freed and most of their clients improved, but at a cost of great time and effort.

One priest, a Dominican, prayed with a woman who was heavily demonized, but he “soldiered on,”5 and she only got worse. She then tried another exorcist and instantly got better, sleeping well for the first time in years, but it took nine months before she finally felt cured. Her psychiatrist is still skeptical, but admits that she has “changed totally.” One exorcist, Father Effrem, rises every morning at 3:45 and prays for four hours to start the day. So I was very impressed in reading about the dedication of these priests. What would it be like if there were 350 priest exorcists here in the U.S.?


Here are some thoughts about the ministry of deliverance that we would like to share with you:


The first thing is that the Italian exorcists concentrate on “possession,” which they state is rare. (We agree with them on this.) What we find very common, and which we believe affects about one out of every three Christians, is being “infested” by a demon — a demonic presence within the person. (“To have a demon” is the usual New Testament term.) The Italian exorcists seem to run into this phenomenon often, but there seems to be very little systematic teaching on the subject.6 Yet, this is the area of people’s lives where there is the most real difficulty!

Who Can be an Exorcist?

Thank God for the increasing number of exorcists, but in the Catholic Church, the only ones appointed by bishops (when they are appointed at all) are priests. There are good reasons in wanting to protect people from self–appointed and unbalanced exorcists, but wouldn’t it make sense to delegate and train Christian counselors and psychiatrists in how to pray for deliverance, when necessary, at the end of their counseling sessions? Who knows more about the personal history and how to approach the causes of a client’s spiritual problems than the person who has been doing the hours of counseling, rather than calling someone in from outside and having to explain prayer needs at length.

Moreover, the early church believed that every Christian, by reason of the fact that he/she was a dwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was basically equipped to cast out evil spirits.7 It seems clear from this book on the Vatican’s exorcists that once a priest starts to answer the great pastoral need of God’s hurting people — whether they exaggerate the reality of curses or not — he will soon be overwhelmed by hordes of demanding clients and cannot do it all unless he has help. (The Italian exorcists do utilize laypeople in teams, but not as the ones who actually perform the exorcism prayer.)

The Types of Spirits

What we have found is that there are several well–defined categories of spirits, and it is important to find out who they are and even name them, because the way to get rid of them is different. What we call “occult spirits” are the most difficult and have gotten into the person through involvement in the occult. Most of what the Italian exorcists deal with are “occult spirits,” but the ones that we find are most common are “spirits of trauma.” About three–fourths of the evil spirits we encounter are “spirits of trauma” and the main way of freeing the person is through prayers of “inner healing.” In this book we are reviewing, there is no mention of inner healing — which is very different from the usual prayer of deliverance. Moreover, women seem to be especially gifted in praying for inner healing, and how is this to be incorporated in the usual exorcism model?

By the Book8

In addition, the priest exorcists seem bound by the Latin prayers in the official Latin Manual of Exorcism. There is little doubt that these ancient prayers are very powerful and the exorcist can’t go wrong in using them. In fact, some of the exorcists claim in the The Vatican Exorcists that Latin is the most effective language in which to pray and that demons have a fear of Latin. If you have to know Latin to pray for deliverance, how many exorcists can we provide?

We find that we need to improvise prayers (rather than read them from a book), especially fashioned for the kind of spirits with which we are dealing. How different it is in getting rid of a spirit of “Anti–Christ” (a spirit of the occult) and a “spirit of rejection” (a spirit of trauma). When an afflicted person has been suffering from rejection most of his/her life, made worse by a spirit of rejection, it seems unnecessarily cruel to shout out, “Be gone, damned spirit, into the Abbyss!”

If you have read about the actual case from which the novel and the movie, The Exorcist, was derived, you will admire the persistence of the Jesuits who performed the exorcism, but you get the impression that they just persisted in hammering away with the Latin words in the Manual and they always got a reaction, but in the end it was St. Michael himself who had to appear and drive out the occult demon.9

Everywhere we look, we see the need to learn more about how to pray for the demonically affected. We find an urgent pastoral need to discover compassionately how to minister to suffering people. We also need to find a way to incorporate psychiatry and psychological counseling together with the ministry of exorcism. They go together — a psychiatrist’s diagnosis of psychological problems is still seen in Catholic documents as an indication that the person doesn’t need exorcism — a perfect example of a non–sequitur: a person with psychological needs is more likely to also need deliverance — not less.

But I think that you get the picture.

We rejoice in the mighty, courageous work of the Italian exorcists in reawakening a belief in the reality of exorcism, but we still have a long way to go in making it an every day Christian reality. So, let us have courage and meet the challenge ahead of us!

1 By Tracy Wilkinson (Warner Books, New York, NY, 2007).
2 An Exorcist Tells His Story
3 Wilkinson, p. 47.
4 Op. cit., p.49.
5 Op. cit., p.121.
6 Chapter 4, “Should We Call it Possession?” in my book Deliverance from Evil Spirits (Chosen Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995).
7 Op. cit., Chapter 9, “Who Can Pray for Deliverance?”
8 Op. cit., Chapters 13–16.
9 See the fine, documented account in Possessed, by Thomas Allen (iUniverse.com, Inc., San Jose, 1994). The exorcism took place in St. Louis in 1949 and took more than 20 sessions.

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Jul/Aug 2007 Issue