Good vs. evil: Exorcism becomes hot topic for film, books this Eastertide

The late Pauline Father Gabriele Amorth, a longtime exorcist for the Diocese of Rome who died in 2016, was the subject of a 2017 American documentary film directed by William Friedkin titled, The Devil and Father Amorth. He is pictured here performing an exorcism on Christina in the documentary. (CNS photo/LD Entertainment)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Just as Catholics worldwide commemorated Jesus' resurrection and his triumph of good over evil on Easter Sunday, theaters across the United States were preparing for the release April 14 of the latest "supernatural horror thriller" of good versus evil with "The Pope's Exorcist."

And bookstores around the Vatican had stocked their shelves April 11 with Fabio Marchese Ragona's "Esorcisti contro Satana: Faccia a Faccia col Demonio" ("Exorcists against Satan: Face to Face with the Devil"), which included a brief interview with Pope Francis and pages of testimonies from exorcists and people deemed to have been possessed.

Unlike a few of his modern-day predecessors, Pope Francis has never performed any exorcisms, preferring to refer people to more experienced priest-exorcists, he told Ragona.

No one is safe from the devil, who "tries to attack everyone," especially those who hold great responsibility in the church or society, the pope said. "Even Jesus experienced temptation by the devil."

The book also includes a previously unpublished commentary by the late Pauline Father Gabriele Amorth, a longtime and well-known exorcist for the Diocese of Rome who performed tens of thousands of exorcisms until his death in 2016 at the age of 91.

"I have never been afraid," he told Ragona in 2015. "I have been just a simple instrument in the hands of God, who is the only one capable of liberating (people) from the devil."

Even though many people, even cardinals, bishops and priests, have shown skepticism or indifference to this ministry, he said, Jesus gave him the strength to keep going and "battle the evil one every day."

Perhaps it was because of the priest's well-known spiritual strength that producers of "The Pope's Exorcist" chose Oscar-winning "Gladiator" actor, Russell Crowe, to play Father Amorth.

However, the film, inspired by the two memoirs written by the Italian priest, is a work of fiction, presenting "a young boy's terrifying possession" and "a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden," according to media kit information by Sony Pictures Entertainment.

It's a mix of horror and a touch of humor with "little bits of Da Vinci Code, even little bits of Raiders of the Lost Ark," Crowe said in one online interview April 6.

That, unfortunately, does not win points with actual exorcists.

The International Association of Exorcists, headquartered in Rome and co-founded by Father Amorth, said, "a viewing of the film's trailer confirms, as if that were needed, not only its nature as a splatter film -- a genuine subgenre of horror films, but also its unreliability on such a sensitive and relevant subject."

"As in other films, everything is exaggerated," the association said in a communique March 7, after the trailer was released.

Such a depiction "distorts and falsifies what is really lived and experienced" by Catholic exorcists and "is insulting in regard to the state of suffering experienced by those who are victims of extraordinary action by the devil," it said.

"The end result is to instill the belief that exorcism is an abnormal, monstrous and fearful phenomenon, whose only protagonist is the devil, whose violent reactions are faced with great difficulty; this is the exact opposite of what occurs with exorcisms celebrated in the Catholic Church," it said.

The association's president, Father Francesco Bamonte, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has said that an exorcism is a "fundamental aspect of the church's pastoral ministry" as it continues Jesus' earthly ministry of driving out demons and "shattering Satan's tyranny over humanity."

Many films have shown an exorcist as a priest who is "nervous, tense and afraid" when in reality he is "serene, calm and sure" of Christ's power to free human beings from evil, he said in 2017 talk published on the association's website Feb. 24.

"Another misleading aspect of these films is the presentation of the struggle between good and evil" in a way that suggests it is a fight between "a god of evil fighting against a god of good," he said.

Sacred Scripture has revealed that "demons are angels created good by God but fallen and become evil forever by their own free choice," he said. "Demons are infinitely inferior beings to God, and however active they are in the world with the aim of doing great harm, they cannot prevent God's plan and his work of salvation fulfilled in Christ."

Also misleading, he said, is "the destructive fury of the demon," which "does not always occur in exorcisms or, at any rate, not with the virulence depicted in the movies."

Father Bamonte said the priest-exorcist is often depicted in films as if he were an independent or lonely "freelancer," a doctor who makes house calls, dropping in "without establishing a human relationship, much less a spiritual one."

Instead, the Catholic Church requires the priest to have permission and support from his bishop to perform the rite of exorcism, he is required to assess the situation carefully, to talk with family members and others, and to make sure it is really a case of demonic possession, which is very rare, he said.

The exorcist must also help prepare and guide the person who is suffering to "acquire the inner dispositions necessary to achieve deliverance," he added.

Father Bamonte said that "unlike in the movies, we affirm the certainty that good prevails over evil, truth over lies, love over hate, humility over pride and this is precisely the truth made concretely visible during exorcisms."

If Catholics do not strengthen their own faith formation or are ill-prepared in discerning fact from fiction and lies, he said, "what might initially have been a good service to the church" in representing the ministry of exorcism on film, "becomes Satan's usual subtle attack on the Catholic Church."


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