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ROME—The pandemic was hard on almost everyone with lockdowns and other restrictions, but it appears to have been particularly trying for the demonically possessed. The world’s Catholic exorcists were unable to carry out their work in person, creating what was essentially a devil’s playground for those who believe.
And so the 15th annual exorcism conference, held in Rome this week after a one-year hiatus due to COVID, has turned up all sorts of new pandemic problems facing the world’s exorcists. Those in attendance at the five-day conference, hosted in a Vatican-owned pontifical university, shared stories about the increase in calls they'd received over the last year.
“Overwhelmingly we were asked to exorcise COVID from people who were sick,” Father Miguel Martin, a Spanish exorcist who is attending the conference, told The Daily Beast. “We were told under no circumstance should we perform the rite on a COVID patient.”
This year the conference, which is officially called the Course on Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation, is especially focused on angels and demons in Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium, as well as seminars on the Asian world in the context of Afro-Brazilian magic rites, which are not in line with Catholic teaching.
For the first time ever, it’s not only Vatican-approved and trained exorcists who are allowed to attend. The conference organizers say the seminar has also been opened up to lay people, especially devout Catholics working in mental health, who are often called in to help discern whether someone has a psychiatric problem or is indeed a devil’s pawn. Instructor Fernanda Alfieri, who teaches about the intersection between science and religion at the University of Bologna, has studied exorcism for years. She says this year’s convention has been especially important because of the pandemic and the fear so many people have had about the unknown.
“The task of a psychiatrist within the group of auxiliaries of an exorcist will be deepened,” she said. “Also the alteration of the mental state and differential diagnosis between psychopathological disorders and the extraordinary action of the devil are being discussed.”
She said that the increase in requests for exorcisms during the pandemic was no surprise. She referred to Father Ronaldo Ablong of the Philippines, who sent exorcists into the parish with holy water to perform exorcisms on COVID patients as the virus spread through various communities. He drew scorn from some in Rome for crossing the boundaries between physical health and true demonic possession as defined by the Catholic Church.
“The exorcistic practice acts on a border area between the corporeal and the spiritual,” said Alfieri. “And that therefore also implies attention to the point of view of medicine, which was also clear to the exorcists of the centuries.” In fact, during many ancient bouts of the plague, Catholic priests visited homes with doctors to either administer last rites or exorcisms as the need arose.
Father Michel de Certeau, a French priest, anthropologist, linguist, and historian who wrote about a monastery in France where an epidemic of pneumonia was treated as a mass diabolic possession in the 1830s, says that instead of assuming COVID is the devil’s work, he believes that people who lost loved ones, livelihoods and were isolated have opened themselves up to devil possession, essentially making it easy for possession to occur.
“The issue becomes more acute with social crises and acts a sort of symptomatic expression of unease that has no other way to express itself but through possession,” he said.
Father Cesare Truqui, an organizer, says the increase in exorcism requests was also fed in part by the fact that people could not attend mass in person. “There are many cases of those who could not be seen due to the restrictions for COVID and who are now turning to us,” he explained at the opening session.
The conference will close with a special session on the internet and pedopornography linked to satanic rites, which is meant to help prepare the exorcists for what many in the field believe will be an issue after the pandemic.
In years past, popes like Benedict XVI did not refer to the devil as a force of evil, but rather focused on evil as a concept challenging many Catholics. But Pope Francis has made himself something of a devil’s advocate, often referring to the devil in an almost human-like way. “The devil wants us to fail,” Francis has said on more than one occasion, “We must never enter a dialogue with him.”
That, organizers say, has been a pull for many to attend the conference—where there will clearly be no sympathy for the devil.