Catholic exorcists and experts have said that there has been a revival in requests for the practice in recent years, gaining a nod even from Pope Francis earlier this week when he thanked priests who perform the ritual.
The Pope sent a message to members of the International Association of Exorcists, a Catholic organization that held a conference in Rome October 25 and 26, thanking them for showing "love to those possessed," IAC spokesman Valter Cascioli told Vatican Radio after the conference, according to the Religion News Service. Cascioli told the radio station that there had been a "steady increase" in requests for exorcism.
Rev. Gary Thomas, a member of the IAE and practicing Catholic priest and exorcist in Saratoga, California, explained that the uptick in requests is a result of young people moving away from the church and toward an ill-defined "spirituality" that he said can lead to danger.
"As people are drawn away from religion they are still searching for answers to the dilemmas of life, and are being drawn into other mutations of what spirituality is," Thomas told VICE News. "As people are more drawn away from faith, superstition has increased, and that's what a lot of this is. But it's not just hokey, it has a lot of power to it. When you start tapping into the spirit world, you don't know what you're going to find. The demonic world is very much attached to the occult."
Thomas and other experts cited growing interest in occult practices, including fortune tellers, Ouija boards, and psychics, as an opening for demons and the devil to take hold.
"A lot of it has to do with more people claiming to be spiritual rather than religious," the Rev. Anthony Cutcher, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils, told VICE News. "Once you become spiritual, there are good spirits and bad spirits. If you open yourself up to the spiritual, it's a mixed bag of which spirits you're going to get."
'We are very careful. We move very slowly on this, we take a careful approach, we have to discern.'
But David Frankfurter, chair of the religion department at Boston University, said that an increased interest in exorcism is likely because of portrayals in the media, starting with The Exorcist in 1973 and continuing through today.
"What these movies do, and the reason they focus on Catholic exorcism, is it shows Catholicism to have a secret power that doesn't seem to be emphasized by the Pope and post-Vatican II priests," Frankfurter told VICE News. "The church in many ways wants to be seen as a modern religion, but with exorcism it comes off as a religion that has ancient secrets and ancient rituals."
"People who are interested in alternative forms of spirituality, what they're interested in is ancient secrets, usually," he added. "So they are interested in Tarot and Kabbalah, not modern Wicca or neopagan spirituality, but what kinds of secrets have been lost in religion. People like that might be interested not in the Catholic Church as it is today, but as it used to be in the Middle Ages."
Yet belief in the devil is a core tenet of Catholicism, and Catholic priests insisted to VICE NEws that exorcism remains a healing ministry of the priesthood.
"In a nutshell, it's founded on the real belief that there is a tangible doer of evil in the world that we have traditionally called the devil or Satan, and it is a personal power of evil," Rev. James T. Bretzke, a Jesuit and professor at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, said. "Just as we believe there is a personal power of goodness, and the highest form of that is God, we believe that there is a counterforce that is personal or tangible and that is the devil or Satan."
When a person requests an exorcism, they typically go to their parish priest or bishop's office and are then asked to meet with a team of psychological and psychiatric experts and clinicians to see if the problem is actually a mental or physical illness or condition.
Thomas stressed that most of the requests he gets don't end up in actual exorcisms. Often people need prayer, medical help, and counseling.
"We are very careful," he said. "We move very slowly on this, we take a careful approach. We have to discern."
Frankfurter, the Boston University religion professor, said that what is most likely happening when someone wants an exorcism is that they are concerned about evil in the world and want to rid themselves of it.
"The rising interest in exorcism reflects, for certain people, an anxiety about evil in the world and especially an evil that can enter them," he said.
"In a society that thinks a lot about what makes certain people do things, what makes certain people criminals, there's a lot of interest in the evil inside of people — were they born this way, is it nature or is it nurture — and the view that people might have demons inside them that could be expelled is one way of thinking about this, about the propensity to do bad things," he added. "But it's also in some ways an optimistic view. It means that one's inner nature can be expelled."
Catholic practitioners said that in exceedingly rare conditions, when physical or mental illness doesn't explain the issue, the bishop can appoint a specially-trained priest to perform the exorcism.
"The church has a ritual, a rite, of exorcism, and it is used rarely. When it is used, it has to be done with the permission of the local bishop, and it has to be done by a priest considered to be a person of great piety and prudence and courage," Bretzke said. "It still exists in the church today but it is rarely used."
The ritual itself consists of the appointed priest and a small group of others taking the person into a room and setting up the space with religious objects.
"The priest insistently and repeatedly commands Satan to leave the person who is being exorcised," Bretzke explained. "If it's a true exorcism, there's usually a good deal of push back on the part of Satan — in that sense [The Exorcist] is somewhat accurate. A person could exhibit fluency in foreign or arcane languages, or would try to intimidate the priest by reviewing his own personal sins and trying to scare him or something like that, and the basic ritual is repeated, with prayer insistence, commanding the evil power to leave, and the call upon Christ who is our savior to assist us here."
Thomas explained his own experience performing exorcisms.
"It can be very dramatic," he said. "Sometimes it's not, but sometimes it is. There's a ritual. We set the stage with prayer, we set blessed sacrament out in a monstrance and anoint the doorways with oil, we say prayers of protection over the team and the person and ask God to be with us."
Then, the priest commands the demon to leave the person.
"There's usually a response, which we call manifestations," Thomas said. "You're causing pain to the demon."
Both Bretzke and Cutcher explained the Pope's comments as thanking priests for being ministers to those that need healing, whether it is in the form of exorcism or other help.
"This conference is trying to look at the problem in a broader sense — that is, not just, where is Satan and how do we prepare priests for exorcism — but also how do we deal with people's real suffering and struggles," Bretzke said. "For most people, these things labeled as demonic are more properly labeled as schizophrenia, or paranoia, or some psychological disease, so then it would be better treated by the experts in that field. You wouldn't treat cancer well if you went to a chiropractor."
"The Pope's comments are, thank you for being ministers to the mercy of God," Cutcher said. "It is a merciful act to release someone from this bondage. If you're being taken over by an evil force and freed from that, it's an act of mercy, so the Pope's comments, that's the gist of it."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @colleencurry