Did you know that people who are possessed by the devil spit out metal nails?
Don Gabriele Amorth next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, a figure he studied for the first years of his ordained life. Don Amorth was also the editor in chief of Madre di Dio, a Virgin Mary-centred monthly magazine.
Rome’s Garbatella neighborhood can technically be classified as “the projects”, but it looks more like an Italian version of a British garden city. King Victor Emmanuel III founded the settlement in 1920, after World War I, to accommodate the immigration of 50,000 agricultural workers into Rome. Like the rest of the city, Garbatella is home to an astonishing number of stray cats. Still, when one dashes in front of my path, just outside the offices of Don Gabriele Amorth, the “honorary president for life” of the International Association of Exorcists, it feels like a sign from above. Don’t relax. The devil is everywhere.
Tempered and withered by his quarter-century-long fight against Satan himself, 86-year-old Don Amorth is ailing. He was recently hospitalised, and his hearing and mobility are impaired. Yet he still has the nerve – or misguidedness, depending on your point of view – to appear on the local newscast days before my visit, declaring that good Catholics shouldn’t read or watch anything related to Harry Potter (which he says leads to Satanism, of course) and must abstain from yoga, because “you think you’re doing it for stretching, but actually it leads to Hinduism.” This is a man who, in his book Memoirs of an Exorcist: My Life at War with Satan, claimed that “the devil himself, speaking through a possessed woman, threatened to disembowel me in my sleep.”
Don Amorth enters the room wearing a black frock. He is carrying a large leather briefcase, which he opens after we exchange pleasantries. Inside are most of his books (he’s written ten, which have been translated into more than 40 languages), a copy of Madre di Dio (Mother of God, a monthly magazine focusing on the Virgin Mary, which he edited for many years), a sampling of his exorcism tools (more on that later), and a bag of nails, bolts and other metal objects.
“I have two kilos of metal spat out by people possessed by the devil,” he says. “Sometimes they come out of the rectum. There were also many pieces of glass. I can assure you that they materialise once they leave the mouth; they’re never covered by saliva or blood. If you were to take an X-ray of a possessed soul, you wouldn’t find a trace of these in their guts. They appear out of thin air, a few millimetres from their lips, although the person generally confesses to feeling the pain they would cause inside him or her.”
Don Amorth shows us a few of the books he has authored and the bag of nails and bolts spat out by the possessed during exorcisms. I actually held a few of them in my hands, which disgusted the cameraman.
Don Amorth claims to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms in his lifetime – “I stopped counting at 70,000.” To clarify, this doesn’t mean he has exorcised 70,000 people; it’s just that demons are particularly stubborn bastards, and the 2,000 to 4,000 individuals he has rid of evil have often required dozens of sessions.
“In order to liberate a body from its demonic possession, most of the time I have to work for years, and try to practice at least one rite a week,” he says. “Lots of repetition. That’s the key to success. But the first thing we must do is to realise that the devil exists. If you don’t believe in his existence, then you are doing him a favour. That’s exactly what he wants you to believe. And in that case, an exorcism is useless. But trust me, he is there.”
I nod and begin asking my long list of questions, but he ignores them. I quickly discover that Don Amorth’s poor hearing means that he will be doing most of the talking. “The devil deals in two things,” he says. “He has an ordinary activity and an extraordinary activity. His ordinary activity is to tempt man toward evil, to lead him to temptation, to sin, to push him to break divine law. His extraordinary activity – and it is very rare – is to give people malign disorders.”
According to Don Amorth, Satan can inhabit one’s soul in four different ways. The most severe is demonic possession: “Satan, or one of his minions, enters the body of the possessed, who appear to be living with a devil within. He uses their mouths to talk and their energies to move them. He knows all the languages in the world. He knows the future, and he has superhuman strength. Sometimes I need up to five people to help me keep the person still while they thrash about and spit and blaspheme and shout and curse.”
The second classification of demonic evil is obsession, or torment. This is when evil forces disturb someone from the outside, rather than directly inhabiting the soul. “Think of [stigmatic saint] Padre Pio. He used to be beaten bloody by the devil. He would be thrown off his bed every time he fell asleep, but he wasn’t possessed. He was simply tormented. Or think of people who become fixated on an idea or concept that creeps into their very soul and leads them to madness or even suicide. That is a demonic torment.”
A detail of the small bottle of holy water that Don Amorth uses during his exorcisms, and of his crucifix, a special weapon against the devil, powered up with an embedded medal of St. Benedict.
The third type is a vaguer and less direct method of satanic attack, a curse that can harm one’s work, health and love life. It’s easy to mistake for illness, so Don Amorth sometimes collaborates with doctors and psychiatrists when he suspects someone might be suffering from such an affliction. If they’re stumped, it may be time for ordained intervention. The fourth type is the traditional kind of haunting (think ghosts), which can infest houses, objects and even animals.
Just as Don Amorth concludes his lengthy and thoroughly detailed taxonomy of evil, I manage to slip in a question about his ritualistic processes. “When I begin my exorcism,” he says, “the person enters a trance and begins to spit and shout and demonstrates an intolerance for holy symbols, sacraments and holy water. That’s when I determine a plan of action and use the tools of my trade. I use my stole [an ecclesiastical vestment resembling a scarf], which is longer than a traditional stole. I take one rim of it and place it on the shoulder of the person I am exorcising. Then I use a bottle with a few holes in it to spray holy water. I also have a special crucifix, embedded with the medal of St. Benedict, the unofficial patron saint of exorcists. The final tool I use is the holy ointment. I don’t need to use the Bible anymore. I know it by heart, after 25 years of doing this. It’s important to have learned it by heart: In this way I have two free hands to hold the possessed still.”
A man concerned with evil haunting humanity might have an opinion on the recent sociopolitical upheavals in Italy and throughout the world. Could we perhaps be approaching a cataclysmic event?
“All I can say now is that the evidence of what’s happening is obvious. We are living a disastrous moment. These wars and natural disasters are only the beginning, the antipasti. What’s coming is going to be much worse. I am optimistic for the future, but I know that we will be struck and they will be judged – these people who want to build a world without God.”
And that’s when I got out of there.
Keep your eyes peeled for our interview with Don Amorth coming soon on VICE.com.