Last May, William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, swore he had filmed a real exorcism at the Vatican. The Vatican denied making the invitation, but according to Friedkin, what he filmed and photographed unfolded in frightening conformity with the blockbuster movie. The footage has yet to surface, but the episode underscores Pope Francis's continuing war against the Devil. He gave public blessing to the International Association of Exorcists in 2014; the year before, the Italian TV cameras caught the Pope giving an apparent exorcism himself.
For progressives who admire the Pope's fight for economic equality and climate change, his war on Satan looks like a throwback to the Middle Ages. To skeptics, it's a resurgence of superstition in an age of science. To ranks of exorcists around the globe, though, it signals that their work is returning to the mainstream—and that there is a need to train some reinforcements.
Roman Catholics aren't the only Christians who exorcise, but they did write the book on it—literally. The Rite of Exorcism was first recorded in the Rituale Romanum in 1614, and besides an update in 1999, it has remained the sanctioned script for delivering the possessed. Most priests are forbidden from reading the Rite; according to the Rituale and contemporary canon law, exorcists must be appointed to the task by their bishop. An ideal clerical candidate is a seasoned priest who has already shown that he has the spiritual and mental toughness to go toe-to-toe with Beelzebub.
In accordance with the 1999 update, a priest cannot perform an exorcism until the possessed person has consulted a psychiatric health professional to rule out the possibility of mental illness. For the small percentage of the afflicted who pass that screening, the priest will then begin the Rite after getting permission from the bishop. Tracing the sign of the cross on the sufferer's body and periodically dousing him or her with holy water, the exorcist proceeds through a knock-down, drag-out fight with the demon. Priests are allowed to use Vatican-approved translations of the Rituale, but according to one of the Church's most experienced exorcists, if you really want to get the Devil out, you'd better come at him in Latin, as in the excerpt below (the translation is the author's; effectiveness in exorcism not guaranteed):
"Exi ergo, transgressor. Exi, seductor, plene omni dolo et fallacia, virtutis inimici, innocentium persecutor. Da locum, dirissime, da locum, impiisssime, da locum Christo, in quo nihil invenisti de operibus tuis: qui te spoliavit, qui regnum tuum destruxit, qui te victum ligavit, et vasa tua diripuit."
"Depart therefore, thou transgressor. Depart, thou seducer, totally filled with cunning and deceit, O thou enemy of virtue, thou persecutor of the innocent. Give way, thou most horrible, give way, thou most wicked, give way to Christ, in whom you found nothing of your works—He Who has plundered you, He Who has destroyed your kingdom, He Who has bound you in defeat and torn apart your weapons."
An English translation of the Rite of Exorcism was approved in 2014, but many priests (such as Fr.Vincent Lampert) still use the Latin text, which has been in use for over 400 years.
There are a number of priests in the U.S. who are authorized to utter these words. Among them are Fr. Gary Thomas, the designated exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose, who was consulted directly on the supernatural thriller The Rite, or Fr. Vincent Lampert, appointed as exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, where he balances his anti-demonic efforts with pastoring the 9,000 members of his parish.
Globally, however, the most recognizable may be Catholic exorcist is Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the maverick priest who has spent the past 26 years pressuring Popes to pay attention to possessions. Through efforts like the International Association of Exorcists (which he founded in 1990) and the memoir An Exorcist Tells His Story, Amorth saw the Vatican gradually revive his art. His biggest victory came in 2004, when Pope John Paul II introduced a ten-week course in exorcism at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. In the program, now in its 11th year, students learn to subdivide possessions, discern mental illness from true possession, and properly implement the Rite of Exorcism.
Each diocese of the Roman Catholic Church appoints its own exorcist, typically a parish priest, who is expected to meet the Rituale Romanum's criteria for the role.
Catholic tradition may provide the iconography of exorcism in general, but according to Dr. Andrew R. Chesnut, it's charismatic Christianity that accounts for much of the revival of the practice among Protestants. Charismatic Christianity emphasizes the place of the miraculous in everyday life, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. Like Pope Francis, Charismatic Christians believe Satan actively seeks to destroy humanity, though they emphasize that the right to practice deliverance ministry (their preferred term to exorcism) is granted by the direct gift of the Holy Spirit, not a letter from a bishop.
Courses on deliverance are regularly offered through Charismatic associations and Bible schools. Students are taught about Biblical authority to direct demons back to Hell, signs of demonic oppression (which can range from inordinate depression to supernatural strength), and the etiquette of demonic interaction—including interrogation techniques.
"One aspect of Pentecostal and Charismatic exorcisms that really stands out are the interviews with the demons in which the pastor attempts to discover exactly which demon he's battling by asking a series of questions to the possessed individual," Dr. Chesnut, professor of religion at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email to VICE. "This can make for a quite theatrical performance characterized by screaming, growling, groaning, and even wrestling matches between the pastor and demon-possessed person."
The most notable of these Charismatic-friendly schools is the International School for Exorcism. Founded by the controversial exorcist Bob Larson, the program blends elements of both the Rituale Romanum (crosses and holy water) and Charismatic deliverance ministry (anointing oil and the Bible) with technological innovations (in recent years, Larson has claimed to conduct a number of exorcisms via Skype).
"The school consists of 30 courses covering biblical theology of exorcism and evil/Satan," Larson said in an email to VICE. "A practical understanding of spiritual warfare against demons (including a detailed explanation of the hierarchy of demonic forces), instruction on various schools of psychological thought and kinds of mental illnesses one might face, and practical ways to actually cast out a demon." For students who want to learn how to do that through a laptop camera, Larson offers an additional in-person practicum.
St. Benedict of Nursia is associated with one of the oldest phrases of exorcism: "Vade retro, Satana" ("Go back, Satan").
Whatever confessional divisions exorcists make between themselves, skeptical spectators remain unconvinced. "I have looked in vain in years for good quality, scientific, credible evidence of these so-called paranormal and superhuman abilities, and the evidence is just very, very weak," Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer and the author of several books that investigate paranormal activity, said in an email to VICE. "It's a lot of testimonials, it's a lot of eyewitness accounts. Every now and then, you'll see a mention in a transcription of a possession where someone will believe the bed is shaking. That's not to say the bed wasn't shaking, but the level of evidence that's offered is far below what's needed for science to validate them."
For Aron Ra, a science educator and president of the Atheist Alliance of America, even the psychological impact on a person who believes he or she has been freed from demonic possession is cause for concern.
"Even if there were some placebo effect to the ritual, it still encourages belief in things that would still persist in the imagination and thus never be fully cured even in the mind of believers," Ra said. "And if the problem stems from any sort of actual mental disorder, then the ritual only postpones or replaces actual medical attention."
Despite the lack of conclusive scientific proof of the truth behind exorcism, Pope Francis continues to preach against the Devil. Francis did come from South America, after all, where the desire for social and economic justice travels hand-in-hand with spiritual healers and messages of the miraculous. If his messages fail to convince the secular United States and Europe even as they continue to motivate increasing numbers of Christians in the Global South, it may just be that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the Western World that he doesn't exist.
VICE creative services, in partnership with the new FOX series THE EXORCIST, presents a series around real-life exorcisms. Don't miss THE EXORCIST starting Fridays Sept 23 on FOX. This article was created independently from VICE's editorial team.