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So You Want to Perform an Exorcism: Here Is What it Takes

The International Association of Exorcists meets only once every one or two years--in secrecy. To join, you must be a Roman Catholic priest and have permission from your bishop.

Father Gabriele Amorth, the official exorcist of Vatican City in the Diocese of Rome and, perhaps, the most experienced exorcist of our time, formed the organization in 1993 to increase the number of official exorcists worldwide.

Since he first became an exorcist in 1986, he's personally carried out over 30,000 exorcisms. He even reportedly believes that notorious evil-doers like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin may have been influenced by demonic spirits.

The Catholic Church is currently the only one with an official Rite of Exorcism.

Exorcism 101

When "The Exorcist" movie originally came out over 30 year ago, exorcisms became widely known as violent, spine-chilling events involving projectile vomiting and satanic voices. Today, Roman Catholic priests can sign up to learn how to cast away evil spirits from the possessed at the prestigious, Vatican-backed college, the Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome.

A two-month course for emerging exorcists is being offered there that teaches the "spiritual, liturgical and pastoral work involved in being an exorcist."

What does it take to become an exorcist, and what would you need to learn? Says Father Giulio Savoldi, who has been Milan's official exorcist for more than two decades:

"I would include the supernatural force--the presence of God--and then suggest that the man picked to do this kind of work be wise and that he should know how to gather strength not just from within himself but from God. Because each case of possession is different, each person possessed is different. Those studying to become exorcists should also study psychology and know how to distinguish between a mental illness and a possession. And--finally--they need to be very patient."

A Shortage of Exorcists?

"I speak with the devil every day," says Father Gabriele Amorth, Rome's official exorcist. "I talk to him in Latin. He answers in Italian. I have been wrestling with him, day in day out, for 14 years."

There are apparently not enough official exorcists around to help all those who believe they are possessed by evil. In Italy, a surge in official exorcists over the past 20 years has raised the number to between 300 and 400, but in the United States there are not as many.

There are about 10 full-time Roman Catholic exorcists in the United States--nine more than there were 10 years ago. There are also an unknown number of "spiritual-cleansing ceremonies" performed by priests who have not been sanctioned by the church.

However, only a small percentage of those who believe they're possessed actually need a real exorcism. Determining which cases these are is one of the most difficult tasks that new exorcists face.

"When you're dealing with a reality like the devil, you can't just learn the theoretical. You need the pragmatic experience ... It's such uncharted territory," said Father Clement Machado of Canada,

Demonic Possession or Mental Illness?

Distinguishing who is really in need of an exorcism was also a focal point of the Roman Catholic's new Exorcism Rite, which was updated in 1999 for the first time since 1614. Although the text remained largely unchanged, the Rite now warns exorcists to rule out possible mental illness before performing an exorcism.

The rules say, ""The exorcist will decide [to perform an exorcism] with prudence," only after consulting with spiritual experts and "if considered opportune, with experts in medical and psychiatric science."

Said Rev. Robert Barron, a Chicago archdiocese theologian and spokesman on exorcisms, "It might be harmful to do an exorcism prematurely. You always exhaust the medical, physiological, psychological, psychiatric possibilities and only at the very limit of that process would you entertain the possibility of doing an exorcism."

Other new additions to the Rite include some new formulas to read during an exorcism ritual along with a ban on media coverage of exorcisms.

The devil may, in fact, be present if a person begins speaking unknown languages, has an utter revulsion to holy symbols such as a crucifix or baptismal oils, or displays super-human strength.

Still, the components of an actual exorcism remain intact. They include, according to the Rite:

  • Making the sign of the cross

  • Sprinkling holy water

  • Ordering the devil to leave the possessed person

Exorcism in Hollywood

Of course, here in the United States when you hear the term "exorcism," your mind probably jumps to the original movie and the image of the little girl's head spinning in a 360-degree circle. If you want to see more of Hollywood's version of exorcisms, or are looking for a little pre-Halloween fun, check out these four movies to get your fill:

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BBC News: Vatican Issues New Exorcism Rules

BBC News: Rome Priests Get Exorcism Lessons

Exorcists and Exorcisms Proliferate Across U.S.

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