Panic attacks are hard to describe. But if you’ve had one – or if you have them regularly – you won’t need an explanation; I’m sure you can recall that debilitating wave of nauseous, mind-fuck horror well enough.
The first time I met 28-year-old Rosalia, in an empty cafe in northern Italy, she was reluctant to talk about her history of panic attacks – and for good reason. The disorder is usually treated by a psychologist or, if it’s a particularly serious case, with antidepressant medication. Unfortunately for Rosalia, when she started to experience symptoms at the age of 16 her mother chose another method of treatment. A devout Christian, she convinced herself that Satan had some part to play in her daughter’s condition and decided that an exorcist would be more helpful than a licensed medical expert.
“One day she told me that were going to Milan to shop – that I needed to relax and forget my problems,” said Rosalia. “It wasn’t until we were halfway to the monastery that she confessed we were actually going to meet an exorcist. I was horrified – my mother had just told me that I had the Devil inside me, and she interpreted every effort I made to get out of seeing the exorcist as a manifestation of Satan. Even though I was sure my problems were psychological, my mum’s confidence began to convince me; I started to believe that I was actually possessed. I was scared.”
Once the pair arrived at the monastery, Rosalia was taken off into a room with the exorcist, who pressed his head into her chest and began whispering the “liberation prayer” – an appeal for help rejecting all of life’s bad influences. The more Rosalia objected the more the priest tightened his grip, reading each scream and squirm as a direct act of Satan. “He crushed me so heavily that I couldn’t breathe,” she told me. “I was about to suffocate.”
Eventually she surrendered, pretending that the exorcism had worked – that a man screaming prayers at her had completely cured her of her complicated psychological ailment. But that wasn’t enough to convince the priest; his aggressive treatment continued for a month, with Rosalia forced to eat and vomit to purify her body of the demon's “remains”.
Unsurprisingly, the exorcism didn’t do a lot of good; putting someone through intense mental and physical trauma is unlikely to help them recover from a condition that’s often sparked by intense mental or physical trauma. It wasn’t for another few years, once Rosalia had left home for university and decided to see a therapist, that she managed to recover.
This story highlights a serious issue within the Catholic Church: there are no external controls in place to supervise how exorcists distinguish between someone they believe is possessed and someone suffering from a genuine psychological disorder. The Vatican’s 1999 guidelines state that “the person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness”. However, Rosalia wasn’t evaluated when her mother took her to the monastery in 2002, and considering the Church has doubled the number of exorcists in some of Italy’s most important dioceses – a move they presumably wouldn’t have made if people were actually being referred to medical professionals – it’s fair to assume that many others aren’t being given that option either.
This problem becomes even more worrying when you look at the figures. According to the Italian Association of Catholic Psychologists and Psychiatrists, more than 500,000 people a year seek help from an exorcist. That’s half a million people potentially suffering from mental health issues relying on a priest and his prayers instead of seeking legitimate help from a legitimate mental health expert.
The Brescia cathedral (Photo via)
To better understand the practice I met with Dr Andrea Bariselli, a psychologist who works for the Roman Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Holy See. I could see the Brescia cathedral from the steps of his office, where dozens of people line up every weekend to speak to the local exorcists.
Dr Bariselli quickly confirmed that exorcists don’t generally consult mental health specialists before starting their ritual. “One of the reasons for that is that modern psychology is a very young discipline – only around a century old,” he explained. “So, traditionally, it was never contemplated.” However, he did tell me that the Church has at least started to consider the medical developments made throughout the past hundred years: “I’ve been asked to give my professional advice in some very controversial cases,” he said. “I also teach clinical psychology to the exorcists twice a year.”
Recalling the introduction of medical experts into the world of exorcisms, Dr Bariselli pointed out how rare it is to come across people who genuinely seem possessed: “Throughout the 20th century there have only been maybe two or three cases of ‘possession’ that specialists weren’t able to explain using a scientific, rational approach.” He also warned against confusing possession with other psychological problems. “Be careful not to mix up the rise of the believer claiming they have a problem with the Devil with the rise of real possessions,” he said. “The two occurrences have more or less the same symptomatology, but the latter is still very rare.”
According to Bariselli, the majority of people seeking exorcisms are actually experiencing a variety of other problems. “In many cases the believers are just unconsciously unloading personal or domestic issues onto external subjects, instead of facing them,” he said. “It’s a defence mechanism. If the person or the family is very religious, this external subject they trust to solve their problems might be an exorcist; the cultural background deeply influences the way people deal with their problems.”
After I told him Rosaria’s story, Dr Bariselli agreed that a month-long exorcism definitely wasn’t the right path to take. If a person with a psychological condition is forced – physically and mentally – to undergo an exorcism, he said, “that wouldn’t be healthy” and could potentially make the situation worse.
After speaking to Dr Bariselli I started looking for an exorcist – a search that didn’t last very long, thanks to the fact there are plenty of practising exorcists in northern Italy. The problem was finding one who would speak to me. Eventually I managed to lock down an interview with Father Validio Fracasso, who claimed to have “visited” more than 150 people over the past couple of years.
A (slightly blurry) Father Validio Fracasso
“It’s difficult to say how many of them were actually possessed – I would say two, maybe three,” he told me. “One was a woman who was sitting in the same spot you are now. She had her forehead leaning on the desk and then she suddenly started to shout and swear against God and Mary, throwing my books and papers around.”
Father Validio classifies the majority of the believers who ask for his help as “people who suffer from different kinds of demonic oppressions – the demons damage the people themselves, their families and their relationships”. He told me that he doesn’t often seek advice from specialists before determining whether someone is possessed or suffering from a psychological condition, but seemed open to the idea. “I usually don’t ask for their help, but I would like to because I’m conscious of the difficulties in distinguishing between the two,” he said. “I also wrote to my bishop to suggest the creation of a team of psychologists in support of the exorcists.”
While he appeared to be slightly more progressive than some of the other exorcists I’d heard about, Father Validio ended our conversation by reminding me that he still very much believes mental illness to be something both caused by and treatable through religion.
“Yes, maybe the origin of the disturbance is mental and not spiritual,” he started. “However, don’t forget that he, the Devil, is responsible for every bit of suffering on earth: disease, pain, death. The origins of the oppression can be different, but – as Jesus said – Satan is the prince of this world, the one who has the power of death – even though, in the end, he is just a dog on a leash, a vehicle of God. In the case of mental illness, the exorcism should not be done. But until we have a method to properly distinguish one from the other, we will continue to do it. At base level, it is just a prayer.”
The problem is, it’s not just a prayer; the longer someone relies on a priest, the longer they’re going without the proper psychiatric attention that could actually help them to recover.
The Catholic Church does seem to be trying to catch up with modern approaches towards recognising psychological illness. However, while the Vatican’s guidelines might dictate a certain set of rules, there’s nobody actually enforcing them. This allows plenty of exorcists to act according to their own views on psychology, which often ends in them giving the believers exactly what they’ve asked for.
Until something is done to control this free rein that exorcists have over their patients’ mental health, thousands more people could end up going through the same damaging experience as Rosalia – a process that doesn't sound very Christian at all.
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WATCH – Teenage Exorcists