More than 250 people from 50 countries converged on Rome this week to attend a week-long course on exorcism and discuss the changing face of evil in our day.
The Tablet is reporting on the course, entitled “Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation,” which is currently being held at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome. Participants are learning about the use of exorcism and prayers of liberation as well as topics such as magic, cults, satanic worship, and the difference between possession and psychological illness. They’re also discussing how evil is spreading in our world today and the increasing the demand for these rites.
“I think it is partly due to the Internet, which makes it (satanism) so accessible,” said Father Anthony Barratt, a British priest based in Albany New York. “Films and television programs are also a factor. There’s a fascination.”
And this fascination is getting people in trouble – sometimes very serious trouble.
As Father Jose Enrique Oyarzun said when introducing Monday’s opening seminar, demonic possession is “always a current reality.”
And it’s a reality that can be found on every continent.
According to John L. Allen, Jr. of Crux.com, Professor Giuseppe Ferrari said that this year’s course featured, for the first time, a section on witchcraft in Africa.
This section dealt with “the theme of the kidnapping and murder of children for ritual sacrifice, linked to witchcraft, in order to obtain favors for clients,” he said, calling it a “cruel and inhuman practice.”
Cardinal Ernest Simoni, an 89 year old priest who spent decades performing exorcisms, spoke about his experiences and took questions from participants. An Indian priest serving in Dubai asked about the Muslims who come in search of help.
“Many Muslims come to our place, even highly educated ones,” the priest said. “They say, ‘Father, someone has done black magic on me, can you pray over me and remove the devil?’ What’s the best way to help these people?” He added that “many come from Lebanon with similar problems.”
In substance, Simoni replied that exorcism is for everyone, without distinctions of religion: “The grace of the Holy Spirit will redeem us all.”
As Allen reports, “these aren’t generally the topics that would have surfaced not so long ago in a typical priests’ meeting in the United States or Europe, but as Catholicism becomes increasingly a Church led by the developing world, it’s not just its face that’s changing, but also its voice.”
For example, bishops and clergy of the global south have long been dealing with the problem of witchcraft.
“In August 2006, the Catholic bishops of Southern Africa, which includes South Africa, Swaziland and Botswana, issued a pastoral letter warning their priests not to moonlight as witch doctors and fortune tellers. Many in Southern Africa turn to sangomas, or traditional healers, to cure illness, ward off evil spirits and even improve their sex lives, and some priests apparently have grafted that role onto their other pastoral tasks,” Allen writes.
Even though Northerners tend to pass off magic and witchcraft as a form of New Age spirituality, it’s seen in a much more serious light in the South where it is known to be very real, and very demonic.
“It’s also a matter of life and death,” Allen continues. “Secretive cults on Nigeria’s 100 university campuses, with names such as ‘Black Axes’ and ‘Pyrates,’ often practice juju, or black magic, to terrify their rivals, and violent struggles between these cults have left hundreds dead . In 2007, a gang of villagers in Kenya beat an 81-year-old man to death, suspecting him of having murdered his three grandsons through witchcraft.”
The seriousness of the matter led the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya to hold a three-day symposium in February 2007 on the pastoral challenge of the witchcraft.
During that event, experts warned that witchcraft was “destroying” the Catholic Church in Africa, partly because of the skepticism of Western-educated clergy who just weren’t responding adequately to the people’s spiritual needs.
“It is important for the Church to understand the fears of the people, and not to attribute them to superstition,” said Michael Katola, a lecturer in pastoral theology. “Witchcraft is a reality; it is not a superstition. Many communities in Kenya know these powers exist.”
The lack of response from some quarters is driving many Africans to Pentecostalism where they can get the deliverance and healing they need.
When speaking with The Tablet a week before the conference began, one of the lead organizers, Father Francois-Marie Dermine, O.P., mentioned the same concern about the Church’s slow response to the increasing problem of evil in our world.
The Church’s orientation to the demonic is “too intellectual” Father Dermine said, adding that clergy do not preach enough on the “personal action of the devil.”
“We are not fighting only against our bad tendencies,’ he continued, “we are fighting against someone – who hates humanity, hates God.”
This echoes the same statement made decades ago by Pope Paul VI.
“Evil is not merely an absence of something but an active force, a living, spiritual being that is perverted and that perverts others. It is a terrible reality, mysterious and frightening,” the Pope said during a General Audience on November 15, 1972.
People who become involved in the occult, be it through tarot cards, witchcraft, or mediums, are playing with fire. As Father Dermine warned, they are often resorting to the occult to resolve one problem, but in doing so, “will provoke many more problems [in their lives].”
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