Interview with the Church's Leading Exorcist
Gyles Brandreth of The Sunday Telegraph
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 wonderfully direct.
“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 14 years."
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 her enough.”
“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 move.”
“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 demon's name.”
“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 table.”
“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 him.”
“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
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
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 murderers'."
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 than men?”
“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
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 temporary freedom.
“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 we do.”
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
Atnorth, 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 for 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
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.”
Printable PDF Version
This interview first appeared in the 29th October
2000 issue of The Sunday Telegraph
Reprinted with permission
The Daily Telegraph
The Sunday Telegraph
For further reading, see:
The Exorcist: Priesthood at the Door of Darkness
Totally Faithful to the Sacred
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Meum, nec non negasti Nomen Meum”
know your works ... that you have but little power, and
yet you have kept My word, and have not denied My Name.”
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