May 22, 2013

Pope's blessing sparks exorcism debate

The Vatican says Francis 'simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering.'

The Associated Press

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis' fascination with the devil took on remarkable new twists Tuesday, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped "liberate" a Mexican man possessed by four different demons despite the Vatican's insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.

click image to enlarge

Pope Francis lays his hands on a man’s head after celebrating Mass on Sunday. Experts say he either performed an exorcism or a said a prayer to free the man from the devil.

The Associated Press

The case concerns a 43-year-old husband and father who traveled to Rome from Mexico to attend Francis' Mass on Sunday in St. Peter's Square. At the end of the Mass, Francis blessed several wheelchair-bound faithful as he always does, including a man possessed by the devil, according to the priest who brought him, the Rev. Juan Rivas.

Francis laid his hands on the man's head and recited a prayer. The man heaved deeply a half-dozen times, shook, then slumped in his wheelchair.

The images, broadcast worldwide, prompted the television station of the Italian bishops' conference to declare that according to several exorcists, there was "no doubt" that Francis either performed an exorcism or a simpler prayer to free the man from the devil.

The Vatican was more cautious. In a statement Tuesday, it said Francis "didn't intend to perform any exorcism. But as he often does for the sick or suffering, he simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering who was presented to him."

The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, a leading exorcist for the diocese of Rome, said he performed a lengthy exorcism of his own on the man Tuesday morning and ascertained he was possessed by four separate demons.

The case, he said without explaining, was related to the legalization of abortion in Mexico.

Amorth told RAI state radio that even a short prayer, without the full rite of exorcism being performed, is in itself a type of exorcism.

"That was a true exorcism," he said of Francis' prayer. "Exorcisms aren't just done according to the rules of the ritual."

Rivas took the Vatican line, saying it was no exorcism but that Francis merely said a prayer to free the man from the devil.

"Since no one heard what he said, including me who was right there, you can say he did a prayer for liberation but nothing more," Rivas wrote on his Facebook page, which was confirmed by his religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.

Fueling the speculation that Francis did indeed perform an exorcism is his frequent reference to Satan in his homilies -- as well as an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.

Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic "The Exorcist"?

In his very first homily as pope on March 14, Francis warned cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel the day after he was elected that "he who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil."

He has since mentioned the devil on a handful of occasions, most recently in a May 4 homily when in his morning Mass in the Vatican hotel chapel he spoke of the need for dialogue -- except with Satan.

"With the prince of this world you can't have dialogue: Let this be clear!" he warned.

Experts said Francis' frequent invocation of the devil is a reflection both of his Jesuit spirituality and his Latin American roots, as well as a reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization.

"The devil's influence and presence in the world seems to fluctuate in quantity inversely proportionate to the presence of Christian faith," said the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University. "So, one would expect an upswing in his malicious activity in the wake of de-Christianization and secularization" in the world and a surge in things like drug use, pornography and superstition.

(Continued on page 2)

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