Upon the publication of the ad interim Rite of Exorcism, Father Gabriele Amorth wrote a criticism and a complaint in 1990 called in Italian Un escorista raconta (Rome: Edizioni Dehoniane; tenth and expanded reprint 1993) but only in 1999 did it appear in English.
The completion in 1998 and the appearance in 1999 of the Latin editio typica of the new Rite of Exorcism, mandated by the Second Vatican Council, have answered some of his questions. But the fact that it took thirty-five years for this revised rite to be completed by the competent authority is an unfortunate sign for Amorth of misplaced priorities in the church of our day.
Underlying his rather short and anecdotal essay of fewer than two hundred pages is his observation that today bishops and priests of the Catholic Church, influenced by rationalistic theologians, have abandoned their duty of pastoral concern for those suffering from demonic activity. Many bishops have never personally performed an exorcism, and therefore lack sensitivity to this issue. Other bishops, he says, simply do not believe in the devil. As a result, the faithful are left unprotected from these manifestations of evil which are permitted for a time by God.
Despite some preaching by the post-conciliar popes, Amorth attributes this abdication of responsibility to a loss of faith in the supernatural, which includes satanic forces.
Sometimes Amorth himself has had to “pick up the pieces” when other pastors, especially in Western Europe outside Italy, should have been more generous in exercising their traditional ministry. He is wrong (p. 15), however, in insisting that only Protestants today treat of the devil with any seriousness.There are Catholics, especially those associated with the charismatic renewal in the United States and elsewhere, who have written on the topic and who are just as competent in the field as the Protestants. And perhaps Father Amorth would be disedified by certain Protestants who place so much emphasis upon deliverance ministry that it becomes an unbalanced kind of Christianity, reducing the centrality of charity.
Some may claim that the emotionalism of the Italian context prohibits a more sober Anglo-American readership from identifying with what Amorth has to say. On the contrary, the growth of dangerous cults and sects in all countries affected by Western secularism affirms him. The occult thrives today alongside business in the decadent West, whether European or American. Among the victims of this phenomenon are women and children, the historical targets of a more emphasized pastoral care in the Church. Whether Amorth expressed himself well or not, and whether he succeeded as well as he should have or not, is beside the point.
A fact which establishes Father Amorth credibility is that he did not wish to become an exorcist. He did not aspire to it but was simply appointed by Cardinal Ugo Poletti (1914-1997) who made him assistant to Father Candido Amantini (1914-1992). For thirty-six years Father Amantini, a Passionist stationed at the church of the Holy Staircase, was chief exorcist of Rome. Amorth was his apprentice.
The author shows that he knows the traditional distinctions among the kinds of demonic activity—infestation, oppression, possession. But surprisingly, he explains that the rite of exorcism is diagnostic and intended to discern whether a person is possessed or not. The average reader might have thought it was only practiced after this had been determined. According to Amorth “the starting point and the first purpose (of exorcism), that of diagnosis, is all too often ignored.” (p. 44) The wise exorcist learns to detect the signs of an evil presence before, during, and after an exorcism.(p. 45) As to the question of an unnecessary exorcism, he maintains the best practitioners claim it never harmed anyone. The goal of exorcism is not just liberation but also healing, and the process may be slow in some individuals or communities. Yes, whole societies may be collectively affected by the world of the demons.
Exorcism typically works in tandem with psychiatry and not in opposition to it. Amorth maintains that church officials stated as early as 1583 that mental illness should be distinguished from diabolical possession. He never sees any conflict between exorcism and mental health, except that secular mental health professionals do not believe in exorcism, and therefore at times misdiagnose cases where true demonic presence is at work, whether by infestation, oppression, or possession.
For his ministry as exorcist Father Amorth believes in using the full assortment of signs and symbols found in the Catholic religious tradition. Exorcism is not a private devotion but a sacramental and a prayer of the whole church, and as such it shares in the intercessory dimension of the universal Church. (p. 186)
Three of the most important signs which he uses, and to which he dedicates a chapter showing their role, are salt, water, and oil. Since he adheres very closely to the formal liturgy of the Church, he was disappointed that the 1999 revised Rite of Exorcism made no reference to oil in the Praenotanda. However, in the section on local adaptations made possible if requested by the episcopal conferences of the various regions throughout the world, there is clearly room for petitioning the Holy See to allow anointing with oil to be part of the official Rite of Exorcism in a particular part of the world. The same can be said for a restoration of the office of exorcist as part of minor orders or a revived ministry.(p. 187)
Father Amorth is a man of simple and naive faith who has not produced for us a literary masterpiece. He learned from Father Amantini, and perhaps priests ought to be afraid to try performing an exorcism without this type of apprenticeship, even if requested by their bishop, simply on the grounds of inexperience. It could be dangerous and unpredictable business. Deliverance ministry is not for the foolhardy. However, Amorth answers such an objection in the following way:
Often priests do not believe in exorcisms, but if the bishop offers them the office of exorcist, they feel as though one thousand demons are upon them and refuse. Many times I have written that Satan is much more enraged when we take souls away from him through confession than when we take away bodies through exorcism. In fact, we cause the devil even greater rage by preaching, because faith sprouts from the word of God. Therefore, a priest who has the courage to preach and hear confessions should not be afraid to exorcise. (p. 67)
In his introduction to An Exorcist Tells His Story, Father Benedict Groeschel asks the reader to keep an open mind. Skepticism on this subject is widespread, and some will refuse to read the book out of prejudice. In fact, on spiritual grounds, it is better not to cultivate any type of curiosity here, because curiosity can grow and become distorted and lead to no good. But for those seeking information on this traditional religious theme, Father Amorth’s testimony may serve as a point of departure. It is not the last word, but an introduction, especially for those who may be suffering from some unidentified evil presence. Amorth wrote the book with the hope of reestablishing the pastoral practice of exorcism in the Catholic Church. We will only know in the future if his influence along with the publication of the new rite have been successful.
Amorth followed this first book with a second, An Exorcist: More Stories (Ignatius Press, 2002). For some it may be astonishing to learn that with the publication of the new Rite of Exorcism, which Amorth calls “useless”,there was separately published a Notification from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, that the old rite of 1614 can still be freely used with permission.
All of Father Amorth’s concerns about the ineffectiveness of the new rite were settled by that Notification. Since then, a scholarly analysis of this new rite has been published by Daniel Van Slyke as “The Ancestry and Theology of the Rite of Major Exorcism (1999/2004),” [Antiphon 10 (2006): 70-116]. Dr. Van Slyke is Associate Professor of Church History at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. UCS Province
Earlier versions of this review were published in The Catholic Faith, 6/1 (January/February 2000): 56-57; and The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 53-54; and the Saint Louis Review, vol. 67, no. 17 (25 April 2008): 14-15.