Salt poured outside an entry gate in Rome. The salt is to keep away the Devil.
“…and deliver us from evil.” It’s part of the Lord’s prayer, and we repeat it without thinking. Maybe that attitude is due for an update.
Coming up to Halloween, there’s a renewed focus on exorcists as part of the regular news cycle. One recent piece spotlighted Gabriele Amorth, former Chief Exorcist of Rome who died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 91. The rather unkind article was entitled: World's top exorcist saw the Devil in Harry Potter, yoga, and thousands of middle-aged, middle-class women. Given that it’s 2021, I’m not sure how he got away with the swipe at middle aged women except to note this particular kind of yellow journalism is merely a hit piece designed to make someone look bad.
The article paints Amorth as a shelved item, past his best before date, “misunderstood and marginalized, although never wholly disowned, by his own Church… a caricature who deserved the special kind of censorship that only the Catholic Church can impose - life in a Trappist monastery.” He notes that Amorth was a deeply traditional figure, out of step with “modern Christians (who) tend to sideline the Devil as an embarrassing reminder of a past when the Church used too much stick and not enough carrot in spreading its message…”
Such open scorn seeks to chastise Father Amorth for believing what the entire Christian tradition has taught from the beginning about the Devil, sin and evil. It’s obvious the author assumes a sympathetic audience, but let’s be real journalists for a moment and dig a little deeper.
Before he become a bald old man, Gabriele Amorth had a rather heroic past. He was conscripted into the Italian army under Mussolini, but instead became an underground freedom fighter. At the close of the war, he was awarded the Medal of Liberation by the prefect of Rome for the important role he played in the struggle against the Nazis. After a brief stint as deputy Prime Minister to Giulio Andreotti, he left politics for the Church and was ordained in 1951. Forty years later, Father Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists, and led it until 2000. He seems to have traded off his struggles in the physical world for spiritual battle and hence found his true calling. Amorth is famous for stating, “I am not afraid of the Devil. He is afraid of me.”
This boils down to a few basic questions for the author. Does he believe evil exists, and if so, does he see the world more evil today than just a few years back? In a different article on the same subject, this author fobs off interest in exorcism as mental health issues springing from the worldwide pandemic. He’s not entirely wrong- there is quite an uptick in requests for exorcisms the last few years, but it’s not just hysterical middle-aged women with kids at home and cabin fever.
The surge in requests goes as far back as 1987. Pope John Paul II reinvigorated exorcism as a response to a growth in demonic activity throughout the world. He updated the rite for the first time since 1614. and looked for conscripts. He said, “The battle against the Devil … is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world.” Hence, he wrote a letter requiring every U.S. bishop to place an exorcist in every diocese.
The priestly toolkit is a crucifix, and a sequence of prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, the Litany of the Saints, other selections from scripture. For Christians, the rite hinges on what the Bible tells us, that on the Cross, Jesus conquered evil, sin and the Devil once and for all. What we see on earth are merely skirmishes of a battle already decided, but still raging. Father Gabriele Amorth linked the Devil’s activity to current events when in 2015 he commented on the Islamic State. “ISIS is Satan. Things first happen in the spiritual realms, then they are made concrete on this earth”.
The rite seeks to deliver the afflicted and to set them free. The possessed person, Father Amorth argued, “isn’t a bad person, only a suffering one.” From the thousands of requests for exorcism, he pointed out most were individuals overcome by worry and doubt. He we would advise them to live a life of faith and prayer. “This is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil’s ills.”
A much smaller number of cases turned out to be the real deal. Proofs included the ability to speak ancient languages like Aramaic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Patients were able to levitate off the ground or would vomit physical objects like nails and pieces of glass. Their eyes would roll upward during the rite and their voice would change – a woman might for example speak with the voice of a man. Some displayed superhuman strength and it would require four or five strong men to restrain them.
How did those afflicted fall victim to the Devil’s snares? Amorth and others cite certain gateway activities that invite the demonic. These include visits to clairvoyants and mediums, playing with Tarot cards or Ouija boards, attending seances, and dabbling in New Age or pagan practises. It’s true that Harry Potter and Yoga were impugned. Amorth once stated, “You start out with Harry Potter, who comes across as a likeable wizard, but you end up with the Devil.” Pope Benedict himself warned of the dangers of yoga and transcendental meditation as“Eastern practices that could debase Christian prayer.”
Exorcism is not just the stuff of movies it seems, though people like to revisit the topic at Halloween. Maybe it’s time to view our times in a more sober way, to question what we invite into our lives, and to consider a life of faith as a better option.
“…and deliver us from evil.” Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.