Speak Of The Devil, Inside Italy’s Boom Of Exorcisms

The well-publicized death of the popular Vatican exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, and an award-winning documentary have stirred new interest in ridding the devil from within.

Vatican exorcist Father Amorth died in Rome on Sept. 16
Vatican exorcist Father Amorth died in Rome on Sept. 16
Lorenzo Cresci and Giacomo Galeazzi

ROME â€" Luca, 15, is rail-thin. When he hears the deliverance prayer, he flips over marble desks and screams in Greek like a scene straight out of a horror film.

Don Mario has had a troubled priesthood. He decided to receive counseling from a fellow priest last year after a malevolent "presence" drove him to harm himself.

The father of four-year-old Mattia has been organizing séances with friends. Mattia has not been himself ever since.

These are just three of the roughly 500,000 Italians who request an exorcism every year. Bishops from the Catholic Church enlist local priests for exorcisms in their dioceses but there aren’t enough exorcists to meet the rising demand. The recent death of the Vatican's prominent exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, and the success of Liberami, a documentary on exorcism that won a prize at this year's Venice Film Festival, have shone a spotlight on a little-known "industry" that’s rapidly growing.

"The devil’s main advantage is convincing people he doesn’t exist," explains Ildebrando Di Fulvio, an exorcist in the diocese of the central Italian city of Frosinone.

In the abbey of Casamari where he works, a constant stream of people arrive to ask Di Fulvio for help in "countering the strength of the devil." In his 50 years as a monk, he says he’s witnessed "atrocious suffering" inside the millenary walls of this Cistercian abbey.

Many people believe they are possessed but few actually are, says Di Fulvio. They sense a strange presence and display unusual behavior but most turn out to be suffering from chronic depression or other mental illnesses, Di Fulvio says, adding that patients are often too quick to resort to exorcism as a solution. "Only in about 10 out of the hundreds of cases I’ve seen was the patient actually possessed," he says.

Di Fulvio lists the external signs that differentiate someone who’s possessed from someone who’s mentally ill: "A deformed facial expression; a cavernous voice; spitting out food or metallic objects they never ingested; speaking in archaic languages they don’t know consciously like Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin, and Aramaic; an unnatural physical strength they don’t normally possess; and violent reactions to deliverance prayers and holy water."

Di Fulvio says that people often become possessed after participating in séances or Satanic masses, or after joining Satanic sects and cults.

Gianni Sini, a priest and exorcist in Olbia on the island of Sardinia, shares the story of four-year-old named Mattia who hasn’t been himself. "The first time I met Mattia, we were in church and he kept kicking his parents. So then I asked him and his mother to go outside so I could speak to his father," says Sini.

Mattia’s father "explained that every Saturday after working in his garden he would go to the countryside with his friends and conduct séances, just for fun. This is how little Mattia met the devil, because his father looked for him," says Sini.

Aldo Buonaiuto, an exorcist in the northeastern diocese of Fabriano-Matelica, says that 10 million Italians have consulted wizards, witches, fortune tellers, and astrologers at least once in their lives. "Most of them are charlatans who dupe desperate customers, but among them are some Satanists," he says.

Booming "industry"

Every exorcist carries a crucifix and holy water, always ready to recite the deliverance prayer to coax out demons from the possessed.

In Sardinia, Sini has performed thousands of exorcisms in his 30 years as an exorcist.

Even the Vatican has addressed the need for exorcists. Pope Benedict XVI once warned there was a need for an exorcist in each diocese in the world. Pope Francis frequently refers to the dangers of Satan in his sermons. But there aren’t enough exorcists to meet the growing demand. There are only seven exorcists in Sardinia’s 10 dioceses.

Elsewhere in Italy, the exorcism "industry" is booming. The number of exorcists in Milan has doubled, while an exorcism hotline was launched in Rome.

Exorcisms have traditionally been popular in poorer rural areas. Even today, 65% of people requesting exorcisms are less-educated women from central and southern Italy. But it’s the other 35% that worries psychiatrists, as more people turn to exorcism. Many of these people are minors â€" 20 out of 100 people who claim to be possessed are underage.

Amorth conducted 50,000 exorcisms during his career, sometimes hundreds a day.

"Exorcisms aren’t for the faint of heart and patients must go through a spiritual journey first," says Buonaiuto. "The first step is speaking with family members and psychiatrists to identify if it’s a medical issue or not."

Demand for exorcisms goes beyond the Catholic faith â€" one young Muslim girl sought Sini after an imam she consulted advised her to speak to a priest.

Some, like Mattia, got rid of their demons quickly but it’s not always easy. "Some exorcisms last years," says Sini. "Without a journey of faith, you cannot defeat Satan. It’s those who believe that win."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!