ROME—More than 200 teachers in Italian state schools have signed up for exorcism classes as part of a continuing education program to help them deal with devilish students.
No, this is not a parody. This is modern Italy, where some advocates of exorcism estimate 500,000 ceremonies are performed each year by specially trained Catholic priests.
The classes are the brainchild of Education Minister Marco Bussetti, a staunch Catholic who represents the right-leaning Lega party led by Matteo Salvini. His idea is that educators need to be equipped with the necessary tools to battle the devil in its many disguises, from cults to drugs.
The intensive 40-hour course offered by the education ministry is designed especially for religion teachers and focuses on “exorcisms and prayers of liberation.” It costs around $450 and is sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum which also hosts an exorcism convention in Rome each spring that attracts around 250 priests versed in the dark art of Satan-busting.
The teachers will not be equipped to perform the exorcisms per se. But they will be trained to intercede with the Vatican’s “prayers of liberation” used by lay people when fighting the devil. They will also be better equipped to make recommendations to local exorcist priests for a full intervention.
Father Paolo Carlin, spokesman for the International Association for Exorcists, insists there are half a million exorcisms in Italy each year. His organization, he says, has around 400 crucifix-carrying members, of whom just over half are Italian, and Carlin hosted a seminar on exorcism in Sicily over the weekend, during which he blessed trained exorcists en masse.
The headline act at the Sicilian event was Father Cesare Truqui, a faithful student of Father Gabriel Amorth, who acted as the Vatican’s chief exorcist for more than two decades and whose bestselling book, The Devil and Father Amorth, was adapted to Netflix horror show fame in 2016.
According to Father Truqui, the devil’s work is not really all that mysterious. “The normal way in is temptation. And the extraordinary ways are obsessions,” he told journalists on the sidelines of the Sicilian conference, referring to everything from video game addiction to online pornography. “They strike the mind or the body.” More rare, he said, “are real possessions when the devil takes possession of a person or infiltrates real places.” In those instances, he said, holy water, a rosary and the exorcism rite set forth by the Catholic Church are the only hope.
But fighting evil appears to be ever more lonely work, with the number of trained specialists declining. “Many Christians no longer believe in the existence of the devil,” Father Truqui told Vatican News. “Few exorcists are appointed and there are no more young priests willing to learn the doctrine and practice of liberation of souls.” As a result, there’s an increase in rogue exorcisms performed by untrained people.
Truqui said that recognizing the symptoms of satanic possession is key. Among those, he says, is a “furious aversion” to religious objects like crucifixes or holy water, and “signs of abnormal physical strength or a previously unknown knowledge of languages such as Aramaic and Latin.”
Another reason for the increased need for exorcists, according to Father Benigno Palilla, a popular Franciscan exorcist in Italy, is the growing popularity of astrology, Tarot card readers and people who subscribe to black magic. “Doing any of these things opens the door to demons and to possession,” he said.
But not everyone has sympathy for the government’s devil-busting move. Italian center-left politician and former president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies Laura Boldrini believes the country should be focused on infrastructure and other ways to ensure the safety of the students.
“Schools are not safe, gyms are not fit to be used and teachers are not properly paid,” she said upon news of the Education Ministry’s new program. ”And what does the education minister do? He promotes exorcism courses. We’re not in the Middle Ages. Schools need to prepare young people for the real challenges of the future.”
More importantly, the use of exorcism has been widely criticized by the mental health community, which warns against this sort of approach to what is often mental illness.
Dr. Stephen Diamond wrote a landmark piece on the use of exorcism in Psychology Today in 2012. In it, he argued that for devout Catholics, demonic possession often provides an erroneous explanation for mental illness, and one they may find more spiritually satisfying. In essence, it must be God’s fault their loved one is mentally ill.
With that in mind, Diamond argued that exorcism often addresses what could be termed as the devil in disguise. It provides what seems a simpler way to deal with mental illness, but at the cost of effective mental health treatment. And as a result, Diamond wrote, “the belief in demonic possession and the practice of exorcism are bound to persist.”
“For some bedeviled individuals,” Diamond said, “the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of ‘demonic possession’ serves to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by mainstream psychiatry and psychology.”
To that extent, Diamond did not disagree entirely with the need for a spiritual approach that may include extreme measures like exorcism, even as he cautioned that it is not a replacement for effective mental health treatment.