An Interview With
Gyles Brandreth of The Sunday Telegraph
On the bumpy flight to
Rome I read The Bible all the way. The passenger on my left
- a wiry businesswoman from Wisconsin - found this disconcerting.
As the turbulence worsened and I moved from Jude to Revelation,
she hissed at me, "Do you have to?" "It's only background reading,"
I murmured. She grimaced. "What for?" I turned to her and whispered:
"I'm going to meet the exorcist." "Oh Christ," she gasped, as
the plane lurched and hot coffee spilled over us.
Father Gabriele Amorth is indeed the exorcist, the most senior
and respected member of his calling. A priest for 50 years,
he is the undisputed leader of the city's six exorcists (appointed
by the cardinal to whom the Pope delegates the office of Vicar
of Rome) and honorary president-for-life of the International
Association of Exorcists. He is 75, small, spry, humorous, and
"I speak with the Devil every day," he says, grinning like a
benevolent gargoyle. "I talk to him in Latin. He answers in
Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in day out, for
On cue (God is not worried by clichés) a shaft of October sunlight
falls across Father Amorth's pale, round face. We are sitting
at a table by the window in a small high-ceilinged meeting room
at his Rome headquarters, the offices of the Society of St Paul.
Father Amorth has come to exorcism late in life, but with impressive
credentials. Born in 1925 in Modena, northern Italy, the son
and grandson of lawyers (his brother is a judge), Gabriele Amorth,
in his late teens, joined the Italian resistance.
Immediately after the war, he became a member of the fledgling
Christian Democratic Party. Giulo Andreotti was president of
the Young Christian Democrats, Amorth was his deputy. Andreotti
went into politics and was seven times prime minister. Amorth,
having studied law at university, went into the Church.
"From the age of 15," be says, "I knew it was my true vocation.
My speciality was the Madonna. For many years I edited the magazine
Madre di Deo (Mother of God). When I hear people say, 'You Catholics
honour Mary too much,' I reply, 'We are never able to honour
"I knew nothing of exorcism - I had given it no thought - until
June 6, 1986 when Cardinal Poletti, the then Vicar of Rome,
asked to see me. There was a famous exorcist in Rome then, the
only one, Father Candido, but he was not well, and Cardinal
Poletti told me I was to be his assistant. I learnt everything
from Father Candido. He was my great master. Quickly I realised
how much work there was to be done and how few exorcists there
were to do it. From that day, I dropped everything and dedicated
myself entirely to exorcism."
Father Amorth smiles continually as he tells his story. His
enthusiasm for his subject is infectious and engaging. "Jesus
performed exorcisms. He cast out demons. He freed souls from
demonic possession and from Him the Church has received the
power and office of exorcism. A simple exorcism is performed
at every baptism, but major exorcism can be performed only by
a priest licensed by the bishop. I have performed over 50,000
exorcisms. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes many
hours. It is hard work multo duro."
How does he recognise someone possessed by evil spirits? "It
is not easy. There are many grades of possession. The Devil
does not like to be seen, so there are people who are possessed
who manage to conceal it. There are other cases where the person
possessed is in acute physical pain, such agony that they cannot
"It is essential not to confuse demonic possession with ordinary
illness. The symptoms of possession often include violent headaches
and stomach cramps, but you must always go to the doctor before
you go to the exorcist. I have people come to me who are not
possessed at all. They are suffering from epilepsy or schizophrenia
or other mental problems. Of the thousands of patients I have
seen, only a hundred or so have been truly possessed."
"How can you tell?"
"By their aversion
to the sacrament and all things sacred. If blessed they become
furious. If confronted with the crucifix, they are subdued."
"But couldn't an hysteric imitate the symptoms?"
"We can sort out the phoney ones. We look into their eyes. As
part of the exorcism, at specific times during the prayers,
holding two fingers on the patient's eyes we raise the eyelids.
Almost always, in cases of evil presence, the eyes look completely
white. Even with the help of both hands, we can barely discern
whether the pupils are towards the top or the bottom of the
eye. If the pupils are looking up, the demons in possession
are scorpions. If looking down, they are serpents."
As I report this now, it sounds absurd. As Father Amorth told
it to me, it felt entirely credible.
I had gone to Rome expecting - hoping, even - for a chilling
encounter, but instead of a sinister bug-eyed obsessive lurking
in the shadows of a Hammer Horror film set, here I was sitting
in an airy room facing a kindly old man with an uncanny knack
for making the truly bizarre seem wholly rational. He has God
on his side and customers at his door. The demand for exorcism
is growing as never before. Fifteen years ago there were 20
church-appointed exorcists in Italy. Now there are 300.
I ask Father Amorth to describe the ritual of exorcism.
"Ideally, the exorcist needs another priest to help him and
a group nearby who will assist through prayer. The ritual does
not specify the stance of the exorcist. Some stand, some sit.
The ritual says only that, beginning with the words Ecce
crucem Domini ('Behold the Cross of the Lord') the priest
should touch the neck of the possessed one with the hem of his
stole and hold his hand on his head. The demons will want to
hide. Our task is to expose them, and then expel them. There
are many ways to goad them into showing themselves. Although
the ritual does not mention this, experience has taught us that
using oil and holy water and salt can be very effective.
"Demons are wary of talking and must be forced to speak. When
demons are voluntarily chatty it's a trick to distract the exorcist.
We must never ask useless questions out of curiosity. We but
must interrogate with care. We always begin by asking for the
"And does he answer?" I ask. Father Amorth nods. "Yes, through
the patient, but in a strange, unnatural voice. If it is the
Devil himself, he says 'I am Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub.
We ask if he is alone or if there are others with him. Usually
there are two or five, 20 or 30. We must quantify the number.
We ask when and how they entered that particular body. We find
out whether their presence is due to a spell and the specifics
of that spell.
"During the exorcism the evil may emerge in slow stages or with
sudden explosions. He does not want show himself. He will be
angry and he is strong. During one exorcism I saw a child of
11 held down by four strong men. The child threw the men aside
with ease. I was there when a boy of 10 lifted a huge, heavy
"Afterwards I felt the muscles in the boy's arms. He could not
have done it on his own. He had the strength of the Devil inside
"No two cases are the same. Some patients have to be tied down
on a bed. They spit. They vomit. At first the demon will try
to demoralise the exorcist, then he will try to terrify him,
saying, 'Tonight I'm going to put a serpent between your sheets.
Tomorrow I'm going to eat your heart'."
I lean towards Father Amorth. "And are you sometimes frightened?"
I ask. He looks incredulous. "Never. I have faith. I laugh at
the demon and say to him, 'I've got the Madonna on my side.
I am called Gabriel. Go fight the Archangel Gabriel if you will.'
That usually shuts them up."
Now he leans towards me and taps my hand confidentially. "The
secret is to find your demon's weak spot. Some demons cannot
bear to have the Sign of the Cross traced with a stole on an
aching part of the body; some cannot stand a puff of breath
on the face; others resist with all their strength against blessing
with holy water.
"Relief for the patient is always possible, but to completely
rid a person of his demons can take many exorcisms over many
years. For a demon to leave a body and go back to hell means
to die forever and to lose any ability to molest people in the
future. He expresses his desperation saying: 'I am dying, I
am dying. You are killing me; you have won. All priests are
How do people come to be possessed by demons in the first place?
"I believe God sometimes singles out certain souls for a special
test of spiritual endurance, but more often people lay themselves
open to possession by dabbling with black magic. Some are entrapped
by a satanic cult. Others are the victims of a curse."
I interrupt. "You mean like Yasser Arafat saying to Ehud Barak,
'Go to Hell' and meaning it?"
"No." Father Amorth gives me a withering look. "That is merely
a sudden imprecation. It is very difficult to perform a curse.
You need to be a priest of Satan to do it properly. Of course,
just as you can hire a killer if you need one, you can hire
a male witch to utter a curse on your behalf. Most witches are
frauds, but I am afraid some authentic ones do exist."
Father Amorth shakes his head and sighs at the wickedness of
the world. At the outset be has told me he is confident he will
have an answer to all my questions, but he has a difficulty
with the next one. "Why do many more women seem to become possessed
"Ah, that we do not know. They may be more vulnerable because,
as a rule, more women than men are interested in the occult.
Or it may be the Devil's way of getting at men, just as he got
to Adam through Eve. What we do know is that the problem is
getting worse. The Devil is gaining ground. We are living in
an age when faith is diminishing. If you abandon God, the Devil
will take his place.
"All faiths, all cultures, have exorcists, but only Christianity
has the true force to exorcise through Christ's example and
authority. We need many more exorcists, but the bishops won't
appoint them. In many countries - Germany, Austria, Switzerland,
Spain there are no Catholic exorcists. It is a scandal. In England
there are more Anglican exorcists than Catholic ones."
Although the post of exorcist is an official diocesan appointment
(there are about 300 attached to the various bishops throughout
Italy) and Father Amorth is undisputably the best known in his
field, there is some tension between Amorth and the modernising
tendencies in the Church hierarchy.
Devil-hunting is not fashionable in senior church circles. The
Catholic establishment is happier talking about "the spirit
of evil" than evil spirits. The Vatican recently issued a new
rite of exorcism which has not met with Father Amorth's approval.
"They say we cannot perform an exorcism unless we know for certain
that the Evil One is present. That is ridiculous. It is only
through exorcism that the demons reveal themselves. An unnecessary
exorcism never hurt anybody."
What does the Pope make of all this? "The Holy Father knows
that the Devil is still alive and active in the world. He has
performed exorcism. In 1982, he performed a solemn exorcism
on a girl from Spoletto. She screamed and rolled on the floor.
Those who saw it were very frightened. The Pope brought her
"The other day, on September 6, at his weekly audience at St
Peter's, a young woman from a village near Monza started to
shriek as the Pope was about to bless her. She shouted obscenities
at him in a strange voice. The Pope blessed her and brought
her relief, but the Devil is still in her. She is exorcised
each week in Milan and she is now coming to me once a month.
It may take a long time to help her, but we must try. The work
of the exorcists is to relieve suffering, to free souls from
torment, to bring us closer to God."
Father Amorth has laughed and smiled a good deal during our
three-hour discussion. He has pulled sundry rude faces to indicate
his contempt for the pusillanimous bishops who have a monopoly
on exorcism and refuse to license more practitioners. In his
mouth it does not seem like mumbo-jumbo or hocus-pocus. He produces
detailed case histories. He quotes scriptural chapter and verse
to justify his actions. And he has a large following. His book,
An Exorcist Tells his Story, has been reprinted in Italy 17
Given his shining faith and scholarly approach, I hardly dare
ask him whether he has seen the notorious 1973 horror film,
The Exorcist. It turns out to be his favourite film. "Of course,
the special effects are exaggerated. but it is a good film,
and substantially exact, based on a respectable novel which
mirrored a true story."
The film is held to be so disturbing it has never been shown
[until recently] on British terrestrial television and until
last year could not even be rented from video shops. None the
less, Father Amorth recommends it. "People need to know what
And what about Hallowe'en? The American tradition has made no
inroads in Italy. "Here it is on Christmas Eve that the Satanists
have their orgies. Nothing happens on October 31. But if English
and American children like to dress up as witches and devils
on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just
a game, there is no harm in that.''
It is time to go to the chapel where our photographer is waiting.
Father Amorth, used to the ways of the press, raises an eyebrow
at us indulgently as he realises the photograph is designed
to heighten the drama of his calling. Pictures taken, he potters
off to find me of one ot his books.
"What do make of him?'' asks the photographer. "Is he mad?"
"I don't think so,'' I say. The award-winning Daily and Sunday
Telegraph Rome correspondent, who has acted as interpreter br
the interview, and is both a lapsed Catholic and a hardened
hack, is more empathic: "There's not a trace of the charlatan
about him. He is quite sane and utterly convincing."
Surprised at myself I add: "He seems to me to be a power for
good in the world." With a smirk, the photographer loads his
gear into the back of the taxi. ''So he's Peter Cushing then,
not Christopher Lee," he says.
Father Amorth reappears with his book and smiles. "Remember,
when we jeer at the Devil and tell ourselves that he does not
exist, that is when he is happiest."
first appeared in the 29th October 2000 issue of The Sunday
The Daily Telegraph
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