ROME — Bishops in northeastern Italy will create a task force of psychiatrists and doctors to help priests deal with an increasing demand for exorcisms.

According to a communiqué issued by bishops of the Triveneto region, a growing number of people are psychologically disturbed, feel victims of curses and other manifestations of what they believe is the work of the devil.

In response, bishops have decided priests must “be better prepared to deal with these requests for help, be able to listen and discern individual cases in order to ascertain the true nature of the complaint, provide care and, if necessary, carry out an exorcism.”

Speaking to the Italian daily newspaper Il Giornale Nov. 29, Father Giancarlo Gramolazzo, president of the International Association of Exorcists, said Triveneto is not unique, and the increased demand for exorcisms is countrywide.

“Unfortunately, the mass media make the devil out to be different to what he is in reality,” he said, adding that without an authentic faith, superstition grows. “People don’t know how to deal with suffering, and attribute every physical or spiritual disturbance to the action of demons,” he said.

Father Gramolazzo, a Rome exorcist since 1973, said that “only four or five” out of every 100 people who suspect it are victims of “authentic diabolical possession.” Around 10 or 20, he said, are victims of vexations of the spirit — as suffered by St. Pio of Pietrelcina — but they are not possessed.

“All the rest, that is to say 75% to 80%, are negatively influenced people who need help,” he said.

But exorcists warn that the need for medical and psychiatric expertise should not make the faithful drop their guard.

Father Gabriel Amorth, Italy’s most experienced and well-known exorcist, warned that requests for exorcisms have increased because Italians “are increasingly consulting maghi [witchdoctors], wizards and involving themselves in satanic sects.”

“‘Practical’ exorcists are needed, with experience,” he told Il Giornale Nov. 29. “Unfortunately, a Turin archbishop recently appointed four ‘new’ exorcists, while retiring those who had long experience,” he said. “But for us, it’s not a school. The only way to learn is by frequently performing exorcisms. I fear that this continuous phenomenon is underestimated.”

Father Joseph McManus, a priest with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity who pastors a rural parish near Naples, agreed with Father Amorth that the problem of black magic in Italy is serious, and that the number of Italians asking maghi to place curses on their neighbors is widespread.

“Italians tend to be intensely superstitious and confused about the sacraments,” he said. “They are not very well formed, there’s a lot of folk religion about and a corruption of the old sacramentals.” He believes an insight into psychology would be helpful as it “cuts through self-deception,” but what is perhaps more urgent is a better standard of catechesis and formation.

“They haven’t been taught how to think,” he said. “There’s almost no critical thinking, so if someone comes up to them and says they have put a hex on them, they’ll believe them.”

Too often, he said, his parishioners are caught up in an imaginary world of hearsay and superstition.

“If you live in such a world of imagination and gossip, what is true and what isn’t true?” he asked.

Legionary Father Pedro Barrajón, professor of theological anthropology, has conducted courses on exorcism at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University in Rome. He said there is a growth in the number of exorcisms being performed in Italy, but the number is smaller than some believe.

“We live in a society where different forms of irrationality exist, where new kinds of magic — black magic — are practiced, and in this sense the action of the devil is visible in a new way,” he said.

But like other priests, he believes poor formation is largely at fault, which leads people to believe that any psychological obsession is diabolical possession.

According to Father McManus, it is not particularly hard to discern who needs an exorcism and who doesn’t.

“If you’ve not seen someone who’s possessed, you have no idea,” he said. “Exorcisms are needed for people who crash to the floor, weigh a thousand kilos, women who suddenly find themselves speaking in the voice of an angry man, shouting blasphemies, slithering up the walls, revealing things about the exorcist.”

He said he has met parishioners who quickly believed in the presence of the devil after witnessing a case of possession.

“It’s difficult to remain agnostic,” he said. “It really shakes people up.”

Father Barrajón agreed that exorcists will usually be able to discern whether a person requires an exorcism or a doctor, and he stressed that an exorcist is in fact bound by Church law to ascertain whether the problem is spiritual or psychological.

As for curses, Father Barrajón said that although they are common, particularly in the south of Italy, their power is less than some fear.

“According to doctrine, we believe more in the action of God that goes beyond these rites and these curses,” he said. “We can be free of them through faith in God. He is all powerful and goes beyond their power.”

By heeding healthy Catholic doctrine, he said, “we can purify these beliefs by putting our trust in the salvation of Christ.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.