The Devil (or, more accurately, fear of the old monster) has always been a good recruiting sergeant for clergy looking to fill their pews. It’s thus no great surprise to read that the Roman Catholic church is taking advantage of a current surge in the jitters.
The Daily Telegraph reports:
The diocese of Milan recently nominated seven new exorcists, the bishop of Naples appointed three new ones a couple of years ago and the Catholic Church in Sardinia sent three priests for exorcism training in Rome, amid concern that the Mediterranean island, particularly its mountainous, tradition-bound interior, is a hotbed of occultism. In Spain, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, the archbishop of Madrid, chose eight priests to undergo special training in May to confront what he described as “an unprecedented rise” in cases of “demonic possession”. The Church in Spain was coming across many cases that “go beyond the competence of psychologists” and they were occurring with “a striking frequency”, the archbishop said.
Why the surge?
My guess is that decades of devilry on TV and in the movies have had quite a bit to do with the revival in beliefs of this nature, but the Roman Catholic Church seems to be looking elsewhere in its search for an explanation:
The rise in demonic cases is a result of more people dabbling in practices such as black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija boards, often exploring the dark arts with the help of information readily found on the internet, the Church said.
In a way, that’s fair enough. If someone is inclined to be religious, it is probably no bad idea to act on that instinct in a reasonably conventional manner: attend the local church, you know how it goes. For an individual to open him or herself up instead to a vague ‘spirituality’ or, indeed, more specifically esoteric alternatives, is to risk the prospect that any number of nasties (psychologically speaking) might come flying in.
The canny populist now presiding in the Vatican is well placed to take advantage of all this. The Daily Telegraph quotes the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen:
“After the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, there was a great deal of embarrassment among ‘enlightened’ Catholics about exorcisms and other aspects of the supernatural. It was seen as a medieval anachronism. But at the grassroots level there has always been a very strong streak of popular religion, a fascination with the occult and the powers of the Devil. We know that Pope Francis is a strong believer in popular religion such as Marian devotion, but that also includes belief in the Devil.”
In May it was claimed that Pope Francis had performed an exorcism during a Mass in St Peter’s Square.
Television images show him laying his hands on a wheelchair-bound man, who appears to go into convulsions with his mouth open before slumping down into his chair. The encounter was shown by TV2000, a channel owned by the Italian bishops’ conference, which quoted experts as saying that there was no doubt the Pope had performed an exorcism. Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, later dismissed the claims, saying Pope Francis “did not intend” to perform an exorcism — an ambivalently-worded denial that left many convinced that he had indeed done so. Pope Francis has not publicly commented on exorcisms, but many of his sermons and homilies feature references to the Devil.
Indeed they do.