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The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century

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Overview

It is one of the most ancient, arcane, and, to some, embarrassing rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the demand for exorcism-and trained exorcists-is booming. And although the number of priests who perform this dramatic ritual in Italy has risen ten times over the past decade, the Church has been unable to keep up with the skyrocketing demand.

In THE VATICAN'S EXORCISTS, award-winning foreign correspondent Tracy Wilkinson reveals how "devil detox" has become an industry, ...

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Overview

It is one of the most ancient, arcane, and, to some, embarrassing rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the demand for exorcism-and trained exorcists-is booming. And although the number of priests who perform this dramatic ritual in Italy has risen ten times over the past decade, the Church has been unable to keep up with the skyrocketing demand.

In THE VATICAN'S EXORCISTS, award-winning foreign correspondent Tracy Wilkinson reveals how "devil detox" has become an industry, complete with motivational speakers, international conventions, and plenty of controversy. She introduces us to Father Gabriele Amorth, the energetic octogenarian who has led a campaign to reestablish exorcism as a regularly practiced-and respected-rite. And based on her extensive interviews with Amorth, Church officials, scientists, and lay Catholics-as well as on the exorcism she witnessed herself-Wilkinson shows how modern exorcisms are performed and the impact they are having.

Does the perception of demonic possession remove individuals' responsibility for their actions? Are the "possessed" actually suffering from mental or emotional problems that should be treated medically? Why are the majority of people receiving exorcisms women?

Wilkinson shares the answers she received from Father Amorth and others to these questions and more. She also tells us how the rite is taught and what the exorcised have to say about the experience.

Fair-minded, meticulously researched, and compellingly written, THE VATICAN'S EXORCISTS will take you into a world of ritual and belief filled with demons real or imaginary. It will be a journey unlike any you have ever taken before.

* Mp3 CD Format *. It is one of the most ancient, arcane, and to some, embarrassing rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet the number of priests in Italy trained as exorcists has risen tenfold over the past decade, and they are still unable to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for their services. Award-winning foreign correspondent Tracy Wilkinson reveals that "devil detox," as some call it, is a booming industry, complete with motivational speakers, international conventions, and plenty of controversy. At the center of this surprising movement is Father Gabriele Amorth, an energetic octogenarian who has spent decades leading a campaign to reestablish exorcism as a regularly performed rite of the Church. Through extensive interviews with him, as well as with highly placed Church officials, scientists, and ordinary Catholics, Wilkinson reveals the profound impact of this growing trend within both the Church hierarchy and the lay community.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Opening with her firsthand account of an exorcism, Wilkinson delves into the spiritual world of good versus evil in an earthly sense. Through interviews with church-appointed exorcists, past and presently possessed people and a slew of others (from psychologists to Satan worshipers), she looks at the contemporary world of demonic possession. At a time when genetics is providing ample explanations about "human nature," Wilkinson wonders why the number of exorcists has drastically increased over the past 15 years. She also explores the church's ambivalence about exorcism and the balancing acts exorcists walk. Frasier proves a compelling narrator: her soft, smooth voice reveals compassion and curiosity as the mysteries of the book are revealed. Particularly during the exorcisms, Frasier provides distinct voices and personalities to delineate the exorcist and the possessed person, paying particular attention to the demonic voices and the actual voice of the possessed. Her other impressive feat is her masculine voice that differs significantly from her narrative voice. With all of the people quoted within the book, this distinction helps listeners follow the text better. Simultaneous release with the Warner hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 11). (Mar.)

Publishers Weekly
Anyone who has seen the movie The Exorcist will never forget the transformation of lead actress Linda Blair from an innocent young girl into a demonically possessed, vomit-spewing monster. According to Wilkinson's account, some contemporary Catholic priest-exorcists have seen even more horrifying metamorphoses. If the priests interviewed in this informative book are to be believed, there is an increasing demand for their services. Underlying the attraction to exorcisms, Wilkinson speculates, is a desire for simple explanations for complex problems. "In a world awash in catastrophe and unspeakable suffering, many people feel increasingly compelled to see evil in concrete and personified-not to mention simplified-forms, and to find a way to banish the bad." Wilkinson adroitly places those who recommend exorcisms in tension with those who do not see value in the practice. The questions the skeptics raise are obvious but important: are people who desire an exorcism really possessed by Satan, or are they mentally ill? How does one distinguish a "legitimate" possession from other pathologies? This book is certainly not an apologia for exorcisms, but it will appeal to those looking for a fascinating history and some thoughtful commentary from proponents and skeptics alike. (Feb. 21) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Contrary to the popular view, exorcism is not a dramatic one-time shot of casting out a demon from a possessed individual. Instead, it tends to be a long-term process that involves many visits with a diocesan-designated priest who repeats a standard prayer asking God to evict the devil from a person (usually a woman). Wilkinson, a bureau chief with the Los Angeles Timesin Rome, gives a relatively balanced view of the ritual as practiced today. Though the official Vatican position recognizes the existence of pure evil, incidents of actual demonic possession are rare. More often, the unfortunate individuals who exhibit signs of possession are determined to be suffering from any number of mental illnesses. Only after a psychiatrist has evaluated the client and can determine no medical or psychological reason for the bizarre behavior is an exorcism performed. One quibble with the author's work is the comparison of the number of exorcists in Italy in 1986 (20) to the number of exorcists in 2006 (350). That such an increase has occurred is not alarming given the 1999 release of the revised exorcism rites that require the bishop from each diocese to appoint one of his diocesan priests to the role of exorcist. Except for the almost funny interpretation of an early scene with the "possessed" Caterina, Shelly Frasier's capable reading is easy on the ears. Recommended for general public library listeners, though those looking for sensationalism will be disappointed.
—Deb West

Kirkus Reviews
A breezy investigation of the Roman Catholic Church's approach to demonic possession. Reporter Wilkinson takes readers to Italy, where a small army of Catholic priests specialize in diagnosing possession and exorcising demons. These priests aren't preying on helpless people. Their clients, mostly women, are "the picture of normalcy"-professionals, even physicians, who insist that exorcism has saved their lives, and brought about healing that no medical doctor or shrink could. The priest who has done the most to "push exorcism into the mainstream" is Father Gabriele Amorth, who believes that exorcism is a means through which God works miracles. Indeed, in recent years, Italy has experienced something of an exorcism revival. Why has the ritual become so popular? Exorcism appeals to people, the author suggests, because it seems like a time-tested, deeply religious response to the chaos of a society that increasingly rejects morality and traditional religious teaching. The Catholic Church officially sanctions exorcism, but the Church hierarchy is cautious and ambivalent about the trend. The Church requires exorcists to follow strict guidelines-public healing ceremonies that smack of "hysteria" or "sensationalism," for example, are forbidden. Wilkinson concludes with some speculation about what is really underneath supposed possessions. "Many symptoms and behaviors" of possession "fit the pattern of a litany of known psychological disorders." Aversion to sacred symbols, which has traditionally been understood as a mark of possession, is also consistent with obsessive-compulsive behavior. Readers may wish Wilkinson had read more scholarship on demon possession-the questions posed byanthropologists of religion and cultural historians could have given this account the gravity and insight it lacks. Ultimately doesn't deliver the substance its subject deserves.
From the Publisher
"[Shelly] Frasier's reading style mimics the credible female author reporting on a topic many will find incredible." —-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400123797
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/12/2007
  • Format: Library Binding

Meet the Author


Tracy Wilkinson is the Rome bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to narrating audiobooks, Shelly Frasier has appeared in many independent film and theater projects in Arizona and southern California, and she has developed character voices for animation projects and done voice-over work for commercials.

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Read an Excerpt

The Vatican's Exorcists

Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century
By Tracy Wilkinson

WARNER BOOKS

Copyright © 2007 Tracy Wilkinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-446-57885-1


Chapter One

Introduction

From its very first days, the Roman Catholic Church has formally sanctioned exorcisms with enthusiasm that has varied through the centuries-sometimes promoting the ritual overtly, and during other periods, appearing to be embarrassed by it. Jesus Christ performed exorcisms more than 2,000 years ago, according to the Bible, as did his more recent vicar, Pope John Paul II. Believers see the exorcism as a major battle of wills between God and the superior forces of good on one side and evil on the other.

An exorcism is a ritual in which prayer is used to banish the devil, demons, or satanic spirits from a person or place. It is most familiar to Americans through popular culture, through movies like the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, based on William Peter Blatty's novel, and its sequels and various knockoffs. Most Americans probably associate the ceremonial flailing and screaming in darkened rooms amid chanting and bizarre, supernatural antics with rogue clerics or Holy Roller evangelists.

In fact, the procedure is accepted, sanctioned, and performed selectively, but far more commonly than one would expect, as part of Catholic doctrine and especially in Roman Catholic Italy. Many Italian priests and devout Catholics believe in the power of a force known as the devil or demons to vex, possess, and lead astray otherwise normal people. And they believe in the power of prayer to cast him (or it or them) aside. Exorcism comes from the Greek word for oath. An exorcism can be as simple as a prayer, a blessing; or, more rarely, it can be a more dramatic, sometimes violent ritual. It remains, nevertheless, controversial, a phenomenon that is mysterious and anachronistic to the outside world, and one that has many detractors within the Church as well.

No priest has done more to push exorcism into the mainstream than Rome's Father Gabriele Amorth, arguably modern day's most famous exorcist. With Amorth as a starting point of reference, this book will examine the rite of exorcism in detail, its history, its decline, and its current revival. Yes, revival. The number of people performing and seeking exorcisms has grown significantly in Italy. We will examine the reasons for this, which range from the kind of promotional work Amorth has done to the endorsement of two popes, a political climate that personifies evil, and the rampant fears of a population increasingly alienated from its moral foundations.

A debate also persists within the Rome-based Church itself. Priests disagree on how to interpret and analyze the presence of evil and the nature of the devil in the world today. Exorcists disagree on style, conditions, and some of the very definitions that underpin their work. And the Church hierarchy, while defending the necessity and discreet appropriateness of exorcism, continues to harbor deep misgivings over the way it is sometimes practiced. Father Amorth and his very public discussion of exorcism drive some elements of the top Vatican leadership to distraction; they disapprove of his showmanship tendencies. Yet there is no centralized oversight: exorcists report to their bishops, and the amount of autonomy an exorcist has can vary from diocese to diocese. Many Church officials prefer to see this as a fringe issue, noting that those who perform exorcisms are a tiny fraction of the clergy. These priests and other Vatican officials cannot say demonic possession is an impossibility because it is contained in Church dogma. But they fear-with justification-that this uncomfortable topic will be misinterpreted and sensationalized. They would rather it not be highlighted at all, in deference to more positive, life-affirming aspects of the religion.

Evolving thought and concern over exaggeration has prompted the Vatican to slightly change the rules governing exorcism for the first time in several hundred years, in an effort to give a nod to advances in the understanding of medical science and to prevent abuse. We will examine the generational divide within the growing ranks of Italy's exorcists. The new crop, many of them inspired by Amorth, grapples with concerns about when exorcism is appropriate and whether it might do more harm than good in cases when it is not. Among these is Father Francois-Marie Dermine, the exorcist of Ancona, who thinks perhaps priests have failed in listening to their parishioners. And Father Gabriele Nanni, who manages to balance piety, fundamentalism, and fervent belief in the devil with a scholarly analysis of faith. Members of the older generation, including Amorth and Andrea Gemma, "the only bishop exorcist," take a more casual, almost cavalier attitude and chafe at the new rules and the on-again, off-again efforts by the Vatican to rein them in.

As conversations with these men reveal, the work of the exorcist is quite delicate, and it remains an unusual calling. Even in Italy, where more people than anywhere else are willing to assume the mantle, the Church says there is a shortage of exorcists who can attend to the thousands of Italians who seek this kind of help. We will look at the somewhat clouded perspective of patients who have spent years with exorcists and also the question of why so many patients are women.

It is also important that the scientific community weigh in, and the attitude there is not as monolithic as one might expect. Certainly many psychologists and medical doctors rail against this practice as primitive and archaic. They challenge the notion of demonic possession in its very essence and say most characteristics displayed by the afflicted can be attributed to hysteria, unconscious role-playing, and high suggestibility on the part of patients. Exorcisms, contend the critics, are a hoax; the procedure is downright dangerous. Failure to discern serious illness, and instead, attributing it to the work of the devil, has led to death in a small number of exorcisms over the years, most notably in the United States and other parts of Europe. And yet there are men and women of science, particularly in Roman Catholic Italy, who are more accepting of the possibility of demonic possession, however rare it might be, and who see a role for prayer and the exorcist. "Science can't explain everything," says Salvatore di Salvo, a psychiatrist in the northern city of Turin.

I have approached this topic as a journalist, reserving my own analysis for specific moments and instead allowing exorcists and their patients to describe at length the phenomenon as they see it. I attended Caterina's exorcism and spent considerable time with her in her day-to-day life. I was allowed to listen to another exorcism that I describe later in the book. With two invaluable colleagues, Maria de Cristofaro and Livia Borghese, I conducted dozens of interviews with priests, psychologists, and historians. I do not attempt to judge the exorcists or their patients, or the Roman Catholic Church. However, the use of exorcisms and, more important, the growing number of Italians who think they need them raise troubling questions about society, organized religion, and mental health, questions that ultimately must be confronted.

Exorcism would seem in every way to conflict with the modern secular world, a world that is both fascinated and repelled by the phenomenon. It also generates conflict within the Church and even among those who practice it.

In the Blatty novel The Exorcist, the desperate mother Chris MacNeil seeks out Jesuit Father Damien Karras, who is also a psychiatrist, and asks him how she can find someone to perform an exorcism for a victim who she says is possessed. Chris has not yet revealed to Karras that the victim is her daughter. The Jesuit, an intellectual, is flabbergasted and responds dismissively, "Well, first you'd have to put him in a time machine and get him back to the sixteenth century."

In fact, they had only to come to Italy.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Vatican's Exorcists by Tracy Wilkinson Copyright © 2007 by Tracy Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Prologue     xiii
Introduction     1
Overview     7
History     31
The Exorcists     57
Patients     98
Satanic Cults     129
Divergence Within the Church     143
Skeptics and Shrinks     150
Epilogue     165
Notes     169
Bibliography     175
Index     179
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