Chesterton said that journalism is mostly “saying ‘Lord Jones is dead,’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive”. I was reminded of this when a journalist from a national newspaper called me this week. Someone had given my name to him because he said he was writing about the death of Fr Gabriele Amorth. In the Catholic world this holy man was to exorcism (or at least the public perception of it), what Mary Berry is to cupcakes, having written two bestsellers about his work as the “Vatican’s chief exorcist”.
My caller said he wanted to inform people about the death of Fr Amorth. But it seemed that the death of Fr Amorth was merely a point d’appui to see if he could find a story that would lift the curtain on the more sensational aspects of exorcism. He had read one of Fr Amorth’s books, which contain a good deal of fairly hair-raising stuff, such as people vomiting up razor blades and extraordinary dialogues with demons. The temptation to see exorcism in terms of the sensational is great, but as Chesterton also said, “Life is one world, and life as seen in the newspapers is another”.
If, as is widely reported, Fr Amorth performed upwards of 70,000 exorcisms in the course of a ministry which began in 1986 and spanned 20 years, most of them must have been pretty mundane, for that averages just less than 10 exorcisms a day every day. In that number he said that he encountered only 50 cases of demonic possession – when the Devil has full control over someone’s will. There will have been more cases of oppression, where the Devil is able to control some part of a person’s will – usually, though not necessarily, because the person has in some way co-operated in this process by seeking power outside of God through serious or repeated sin, or by having recourse to magic, psychics or esoteric practices of some kind. But even this is relatively rare.
The media billed him as the Vatican’s chief exorcist, but in reality he was nothing of the sort. Exorcism is a charism given by Our Lord to the Apostles. It is an exercise of the ministry of bishops, so by extension, the chief Vatican exorcist is the Pope. A bishop may delegate this function to a priest, but a priest does not become an exorcist by virtue of some special charism of his own, and his authority extends only to his own diocese.
Fr Amorth did the Church and the world a great service in reminding them that evil is real and it is personal. It is not merely some kind of projection of my own “dark side”. Although the most common way Satan and his legion of fallen angels are encountered is in the very mundane and frequent experience of temptation, there are demons at work in the world who can oppress – or even, in very rare cases, possess – someone’s will. When one experiences the reality of such presences stripped of the glamour with which popular culture surrounds it, it is horrible and frightening.
That Fr Jacques Hamel should say to his attackers “Get away from me, Satan” was not the expression of some kind of inner conflict with his true self, a projection of a darkness inside. Rather, it was seeing how one’s true self is threatened by the face of an evil which we often think we can temper with, but in its “purest” form only seeks to destroy us. To reject Satan in all his guises is the primary requisite for confessing faith.
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