INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EXORCISTS TIMELINE
1925 (1 May): Gabriel Amorth was born in Modena, Italy.
1954: Amorth was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
1986 (June): Father Gabriel Amorth became an official exorcist.
1991 (September 4): The International Association of Exorcists was founded with Father Amorth as President.
1994: The first official international conference of the association took place.
1999: A new rite of exorcism published, replacing the 1614 rite 385 years later.
2000: Father Amorth retired as President of the International Association of Exorcists and became its Honorary President for life.
2013: The association, together with the Sacerdos Institute of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, began sponsoring week-long training courses for priests and lay people in the ministry of exorcism.
2014 (June 13): The Congregation for Clergy approved the Statutes of the Association and conferred its legal status by recognizing it as a Private Association of Faithful under canon law.
2016 (September 16): Father Amorth died of pulmonary complications at age ninety-one.
The International Association of Exorcists (IAE), which is today led by Father Francesco Bamonte, was founded in Italy in 1991 by Father René Chenessau, exorcist of the diocese of Pontoise (Paris), and by Father Gabriel Amorth (1925-2016), [Image at right] a famous Roman exorcist of the Society of San Paolo, and member of the Pontifical Mariana International Academy (not by chance, since in the Christian tradition it is the Virgin Mary to whom God the Father gives the power to crush the serpent’s head with her feet, and it is to Mary that exorcists consecrate themselves).
Its origin lays in Chenessau’s and Amorth’s observation of their society in the 1980s, specifically that there was an increase of occult practices and in the numbers of the faithful who turned to an exorcist for help. They thought it necessary for them to create an international network composed of those who dealt with this phenomenon. The official founding date of the IAE was September 4, 1991, the date of the first meeting of the group of exorcists. By the year 2000, the association claimed to have 200 members (Collins 2009).
From their first meetings, the IAE exorcists realized the need to involve psychologists and psychiatrists in their activities. At the second official conference organized by IAE in 1993, seventy-nine exorcists participated. In 1994, the first official international conference was organized, and was conducted in several languages with simultaneous translation, with eighty-one participants. During the 2005 international conference, the participants were also received by Pope Benedict XVI (1927 – ). Among the activities promoted by the IAE since 2000 are the School for Exorcists, held for a few days a year, and various spiritual exercises for exorcists.
At the time of the association’s foundation, there were forty IAE members; in 2017 there were more than 500 (130 of whom are lay auxiliaries). Initially, almost all the members of the association were Italians, but today Italians comprise only a little over half of the members. Every two years, since 1994, the association organizes a large five-day international conference. The recent ones attracted more than 100 Italian priests and exorcists and about eighty foreign priests and exorcists. Auxiliaries (such as lay people belonging to prayer groups, psychologists, doctors, lawyers, pastoral workers) also attend, coming from all continents. In the odd years, however, an Italian national conference is organized. Given the increasing number of exorcists and hence the greater demand for training, in 2017, for the first time, the IAE also organized a Neo-exorcist Training Course that was held in Rome.
Each year since 2013, the IAE, together with the Sacerdos Institute of the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, [Image at ritght] has sponsored a week-long training course, providing a theoretical and practical base course for priests and lay people in the ministry of exorcism. During the first two academic years (2004–2005 and 2005–2006), the course lasted four months; since 2007, to meet ever increasing demands coming from various parts of the world, the course has become more focused and thus more intense, lasting only a week. It is interesting to note that in 2008 the training course, which had made the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University known throughout the world, was suspended. The organizers requested a “sabbatical” year of reflection to reconsider the organization of the course, due to the tremendous international media impact that the course had had in its first year.
The fifth course, in 2010, anticipated the release of the film, The Rite, which occurred in early 2011 and almost coincided with the sixth course. This film, starring Anthony Hopkins, produced by New Line, and distributed by Warner Bros. It was inspired by the 2009 essay The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by journalist Matt Baglio (2009), who participated in one of the first courses at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. After the eleventh course, in 2016, the documentary film Liberami was produced by director Federica Di Giacomo, who took part in the tenth course by filming and interviewing some of the participants. In 2017, a discussion forum on these films was also held during the course.
The association believes in the increased presence of the devil in our society and the deficiency of the Catholic Church to deal with these attacks. Its founders had experienced a time period when exorcisms were in sharp decline and even rare (Young 2016). The association was created to revitalise the practice of exorcism in the church, provide a support for exorcists to exchange perspectives and ideas, and train the new generation of professionals.
The Catholic ritual of exorcism is undertaken when people are understood to be affected and/or possessed by the devil. Father Gabrielle Amorth (2016:66–75) differentiates diabolical possession, which is rare, from diabolical vexation (physical or psychological attacks by a demon), obsession (disturbances or hallucinations initiated by a demon), and infestation (demonic disturbances inflicted on houses, objects or animals). He has claimed to have dealt with 50,000 cases, of which only eighty-four were, in his assessment, authentic.
Father Amorth claims that exorcism existed before Christianity and that it was known in “practically all ancient cultures” (Amorth 2016:97). He states that ancient magical rituals were simply the precursor to Christian rituals before they became “illuminated by the truth of Christ.” Making reference to the secularisation process, Father Amorth makes the claim that “[w]hen faith in God declines, idolatry and irrationality increases; man [sic] must then look elsewhere for answers to his [sic] meaningful questions” (2016:53). He believes that this has led to an increase of practice in the occult, which has attracted the attention of the devil. However, at the time he wanted to create this association, he was concerned that exorcism was better organized by protestant groups. Indeed, in the 1999 translation of his best-selling book, Amorth (1999:15) admits to wanting to bring back an interest in exorcism, “which was found in times past among Catholics but is now found only among Protestants.” He confirms his claim later in his book by stating that
as in the study and dissemination of the Bible, Catholics are lagging behind some Protestant denominations. I will never tire of repeating this: rationalism and materialism have polluted a segment of theologians … (Amorth 1999:173).
His aim is thus to contribute to re-establishing the pastoral practice of exorcism in the Catholic Church (Amorth 1999:174). Acknowledging how difficult it is for someone in need to find an exorcist, he even advises people to go instead to a Catholic Charismatic Renewal group (Amorth 2016:100), a movement that developed in the U.S. that is influenced by Pentecostalism’s prayers of deliverance (1999:120). Amorth (1999:34) claims that “while possessions are still relatively rare today, we exorcists run into a great number of people who have been struck by the devil in health, jobs, or relationships.”
The full ritual of exorcism in Christianity is still regarded as the purview of the Catholic Church; however, Amorth is making reference to his Church’s inability to provide a ministry of deliverance (i.e. rituals to cleanse people of the presence of the devil even if not possessed). The significance, we read, of the increase in the number of professionals of exorcism is not necessarily that it allows for the wider provision of the Roman Ritual, but that it allows Catholicism to keep step with Protestantism in addressing a gap in the ministry that some Protestant groups appear to have filled. Amorth (1999) claims that the current ritual does not address those cases where people are affected by an evil influence; he also refers to the scarcity of exorcists in European nations other than Italy, and notes, almost with envy, that some Protestant denominations take the matter more seriously than does the Catholic Church. In his book, Amorth does not engage in any theological discussion with regards to their differences from the Catholic Church; instead, he writes very positively that ‘[t]hey investigate an occurrence, and when after their process of discernment, they find evidence of diabolical activity, they exorcize with an efficacy that many times I was able to witness personally’ (Amorth 1999:172). However, this exorcist does not accept the Charismatic distinction between simple and formal exorcism. He argues that exorcism should be limited to priests and that Charismatic “deliverance prayers” do not fit with exorcism. For him, exorcism is part of a sacramental Christian lifestyle (Collins 2009:172). On the other hand, Francis MacNutt, a highly educated Roman Catholic priest, advocates deliverance ministry as a form of minor exorcism that can be practised without reference to Church authorities. This priest claims that cases that require major exorcism are so rare that he has never encountered a single one (Collins 2009:56–57). However, a Belgian Archbishop, Leon-Joseph Suenens, refutes the Charismatics’ practice of deliverance as a type of “minor” exorcism and states that it is up to the Roman Catholic Church to formalize the guidelines for the practice of exorcism and deliverance (Collins 2009:.81). Fr Driscoll (2015:128) writes of Catholics wanting to drive demons out “in the same dramatic fashion as their Pentecostal counterparts” and emphasizes that prayer and the sacraments are the most adequate means to fight these demons. Driscoll even refers to deliverance as the Wild West of demon fighting (2015:181), and states that
the Catholic Church has no official deliverance doctrines, ministers, or rites. The deliverance concept, including its theology, procedures, and terminology, has been borrowed from Pentecostalism and/or invented by the deliverance professionals themselves. Prayer and the sacraments are the traditional Catholic means of fighting low-level demonic attacks (2015:141).
Around the time that Paul VI (1897-1978) got rid of the order of exorcists within the Catholic Church (Muchembled 2000), the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was developing, in the U.S. in 1967 and internationally in the 1970s (Csordas 2007). This is a movement that synthesizes elements of Catholicism and Pentecostalism. One of its leaders was Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, who wrote a book published by Pauline Editions in 1982, with a foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger. Amorth (1999:173) quotes a useful passage:
At the beginning, many Catholics tied to the renewal movement discovered the practice of deliverance among Christians of other traditions, belonging mainly to the Free Churches or Pentecostals. The books that they read, and still read, for the most part come from these denominations. Among their literature there is an enormous wealth of information on the devil and his acolytes, on witchcraft and its methodology, and so forth. In the Catholic Church, this field has been left almost fallow. Our directives for specific pastoral response are inadequate for our times.
Amorth (1999:186–87) then criticizes Cardinal Suenens for not regarding exorcism as a sacrament. In the quoted statement above we can see a strong link between renewed interest in exorcism and the importation of a deliverance ministry into the Catholic Church through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has been a driving force to the creation of this association within Catholicism.
Father Amorth (2016:87) insists that anyone from any religion or non-religion can be attacked by demons but that exorcism and prayers of deliverance can only work for people who live in “God’s grace.” The former leading Italian Catholic exorcist is here making a claim about a practice of deliverance heavily promoted by Pentecostals.
With regards to Catholicism specifically, the push from people like Amorth is not necessarily to bring more priests into the Church, but to train more of the Church’s existing priests on how to expel the devil.
According to Giuseppe Ferrari, one of the organizers of the training courses,
what characterizes this academic initiative is its multidisciplinary approach, in fact, the theme of exorcism is with dealt from various aspects: theological, canonical, anthropological, phenomenological, sociological, medical, pharmacological, psychological, legal, and criminological. This setting, which has proven its success, allows wide-ranging training, and is unique in the field of university education programmes.
In his opening speech to the course of 2017, Ferrari highlighted the danger posed by a new spiritual phenomenon, “spiritual Satanism,” which refers to presenting Satan as a good spirit and thus opening the door to the negative actions of the malignant one. He also asked attendees to reflect on the fact that “in the field of exorcism and of the liberation prayer, there is a growing need for thorough preparation to avoid practices not allowed by canon law.” According to Ferrari, one should note “the increase of certain ecclesiastical groups who, under the guidance of lay people, find themselves to make supplications for the precise purpose of obtaining liberation from the influx of demons;” in this regard, Ferrari quoted the letter to bishops on exorcism rules written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (September 29, 1985) outlining some of the norms of canon law (Canon 1172). That letter stated that no one could legitimately perform exorcisms on a possessed person if he or she had not obtained a special and formal license from the local bishop, that the lay faithful are not allowed to use the formula of exorcism against Satan and the rebellious angels, and that bishops are invited to be vigilant so that those who do not have the formal licence should not lead exorcism rites. It would thus seem clear that there is a need for the Church to keep in check a growing phenomenon that is otherwise likely to escape the control of the institution.
The Congregation for Clergy approved the Statutes of the Association and conferred its legal status on June 13, 2014 by recognizing IAE as a Private Association of Faithful under canon law. [Image at right]
Article 3 of the Statute describes the association’s objectives: a) to promote the first basic training and the subsequent ongoing training of exorcists; b) to encourage encounters between exorcists especially at the national and international level; c) to favor the inclusion of the ministry of the exorcist in the community dimension and in the ordinary pastoral care of the local church; d) to promote the right knowledge of this ministry among the people of God; e) to promote studies on exorcism in its various aspects; f) to promote collaboration with experts in medicine and psychiatry.
All these objectives highlight some problematic aspects related to the role of the exorcist which will be faced and addressed by the Association. From an institutional standpoint there is a need to give initial training to priests who intend to become exorcists in order to avoid magical experiments or even abuses of the practice of exorcism. There is the need for exorcists to network, to prevent them from becoming individual entrepreneurs, sometimes mistaken for magicians. It is necessary to make known the role of the exorcist within the communities in order to prevent the faithful who think they are possessed from resorting to rites of other religious confessions, such as those of the Pentecostals. There is also the cultural dimension, the need to give a foundation of “credibility,” reasonable if not rational, to the practice of exorcism and the beliefs that are connected. Finally, it is important to seek collaboration with doctors and psychiatrists in a search for legitimacy by science.
According to the Statute, those who can belong to the Association are the members (exorcists) and the aggregates. Exorcists must have received explicit permission from their bishop to be able to practice the rite of exorcism. The aggregates are the Catholic faithful, both priests and lay people, who help the exorcists in carrying out their ministry. In order to belong to the Association, the aggregates must make a written request to the central secretariat, attaching a letter of presentation written by the exorcist with whom they are collaborators.
Some groups engaging in the fight against the devil were born at the margins of the Catholic Church. For example, the USEDEI, the International University of Specialized Sciences on Exorcism, Demonology and Eschatology, operates in Turin. The University, counting among its professors priests, bishops and lay professionals, regularly offers conferences and courses on various topics related to exorcism and possession. Among these are: “Exorcism practice,” “Angelology and demonology,” “Basic elements of physiology and human pathology for exorcizing healing practice;” “Exorcism in the history of religions and cultural anthropology;” “Agiography of saints in history: Exorcist saints and saints possessed;” “Modern forms of esotericism and relationships with alternative medicine;” “Mariology: Mary’s role in the battle against Satan;” “Eschatological themes: Hell, purgatory, paradise, limbo;” “Subliminal messages in mass media and music;” and “Psychosomatic spiritual disease: Causes and therapies with prayer for healing and liberation.”
The greatest challenge facing IAE may well be creating a sufficient base of trained exorcists. For more than twenty years, therefore, Italy has played a leading role in organizing and systematizing the Catholic fight against the devil. This is not only because the number of exorcists has substantially increased in this country, but also because several dioceses have officially opened special offices dedicated to receiving people who feel that they are possessed. A greater number of seminars are being held in order to prepare the exorcists for their mission, and almost always such initiatives receive considerable attention in local and national newspapers. In the diocese of Milan, one of the largest dioceses in the world, with more than 1,000 parishes and 5,000,000 inhabitants, the number of exorcists has more than doubled in the last ten years, increasing from four to ten priests engaged in such rituals. Since 2012, the diocese has opened an office with a dedicated telephone line through which every day a person is available to give direction to those who need to contact the nearest exorcist. Further, attendance at the Lombard Episcopal Conference, headed by the diocese of Milan, grew from eighteen exorcists in 2003 to thirty-two in 2016. The Episcopal Conference brings the exorcists of that region together every year, for a day in which they talk about the problems they have encountered and seek common solutions.
In the same way, the Bishops’ Conference of Triveneto, in the North-East of Italy where the city of Venice is located, is also being organized: the bishops in the last ten years have appointed at least one exorcist for each diocese. If at the beginning of the 2000s the exorcists in this ecclesiastical region were just over ten, recently the number has risen to almost fifty. Some dioceses (such as that of Verona, Padua, Vicenza, Trento) have several priests who are authorized by the bishop to celebrate the rite of exorcism.
As an exorcist we interviewed told us (Giordan and Possamai 2018), the greatest challenge for the future is to prepare “professionally” priests capable of carrying out this service because, according to his experience, the number of people seeking help is constantly increasing. And in addition to priests who can legitimately perform the rite of exorcism, there is also the need to train lay people, men and women, who assist the exorcist in the preparation of the rite as well as helping those affected by the “discomforts of the soul” in their daily life.
In addition to the professionalization process, the exorcists we interviewed also highlighted the need to structure the presence of exorcists in their locality. The objective is for the exorcists not to appear as something “extraordinary” but rather as an aspect of their “ordinary pastoral care in healthcare.” In this way, exorcists may assist people who are affected by physical illnesses in the same way as people who think they are being attacked by the devil.
Image #1: Father Gabriel Amorth.
Image #3: Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome.
Image #3: The logo of the International Association of Exorcists.
Amorth, Gabriel with Stefano Stimamiglio. 2016. An Exorcist Explains the Demonic. The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.
Amorth, Gabriel. 1999. An Exorcist Tells His Story. San Francisco: Ignatius.
Baglio, Matt. 2009. The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist. London: Simon & Schuster.
Collins, James. 2009. Exorcism and Deliverance Ministry in the Twentieth Century. An Analysis of the Practice and Theology of Exorcism in Modern Western Christianity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
Csordas, Thomas. 2007. “Global Religion and the Re-enchantment of the World. The Case of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.” Anthropological Theory 7:295–314.
Driscoll, Mike. 2015. Demons, Deliverance and Discernment. Separating Fact from Fiction about the Spirit World. El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers Press.
Giordan, Giuseppe. and Adam Possamai. 2018. Sociology of Exorcism in Late Modernity. Basinkstoke: Palgrave McMillan.
Muchembled, Robert. 2000. Une histoire du diable XIIe-XXe siècle. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Young, Francis. 2016. A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. London: Palgrave.
1 December 2020