Book commentary

An Exorcist Tells His Story, Ignatius Press, 1999, 205 pages; AN EXORCIST: MORE STORIES, Ignatius Press, 2002, 203 pages; both written by Father Gabriele Amorth, SSP; both translated by Nicoletta V. MacKenzie. Reviewed by Father Brian Van Hove, SJ Father Gabriele Amorth wrote a criticism in 1990 upon the publication of the interim "Rite of Exorcism," but only in 1999 did it appear in English. The appearance in 1999 of the Latin editio typica of the new Rite of Exorcism, mandated by the Second Vatican Council, answered some of his questions. The fact that it took 35 years for this revised rite to be completed is an unfortunate sign, Father Amorth believes, of misplaced priorities. Underlying his anecdotal essay of fewer than 200 pages, titled "An Exorcist Tells His Story," is his observation that today some people, influenced by rationalistic theologians, have abandoned concern for those suffering from demonic activity. The faithful are left unprotected from these manifestations of evil, which are permitted for a time by God. Despite the preaching of post-conciliar popes, Father Amorth attributes this situation to a loss of belief in the supernatural, which includes satanic forces. Father Amorth is wrong to insist, as he does on page 5, that only Protestants today treat the devil with seriousness. There are Catholics, especially ones associated with the charismatic renewal in the United States, who have written on the topic and are as competent as Protestants. Perhaps Father Amorth would be disedified by certain Protestants who place so much emphasis upon deliverance ministry that it becomes an unbalanced Christianity, reducing the centrality of charity. The growth of dangerous cults and sects in all countries affected by Western secularism affirms Father Amorth. The occult thrives today alongside business in the decadent West, whether European or American. Among the victims of this phenomenon are women and children, the historical targets of pastoral care in the Church. A fact that establishes Father Amorth’s credibility is that he did not wish to become an exorcist. He was simply appointed by Cardinal Ugo Poletti, who made him assistant to Father Candido Amantini. For 36 years Father Amantini, a Passionist stationed at the Church of the Holy Staircase, was chief exorcist of Rome. Father Amorth was his apprentice. He knows the traditional distinctions — infestation, oppression, possession. Surprisingly, he explains that the rite of exorcism is diagnostic and intended to discern whether a person is possessed. The average reader might have thought it was only practiced after this had been determined. According to Father Amorth on page 44, "the starting point and the first purpose (of exorcism), that of diagnosis, is all too often ignored." The wise exorcist learns to detect the signs of an evil presence before, during and after an exorcism, he notes on page 45. The goal of exorcism is not just liberation but also healing, and the process may be slow in some individuals or communities. Exorcism typically works together with psychiatry and not in opposition to it. Father Amorth maintains that Church officials stated as early as 1583 that mental illness should be distinguished from diabolical possession. He never sees any conflict between exorcism and mental health, except that secular mental health professionals do not believe in the supernatural, and therefore at times misdiagnose cases. For his ministry Father Amorth believes in using the signs and symbols of the Catholic religious tradition. Exorcism is not a private devotion but a sacramental and a prayer of the whole Church, and as such it shares in the intercessory dimension of the universal Church, he states on page 186. Three of the most important signs which he uses are salt, water and oil. Since he adheres closely to the formal liturgy of the Church, he was disappointed that the 1999 revised "Rite of Exorcism" made no reference to oil in the Praenotanda. In the section on local adaptations made possible if requested by the episcopal conferences, there is room for petitioning the Holy See to allow anointing with oil as part of the official "Rite of Exorcism." The same can be said for a restoration of the office of exorcist as part of minor orders, he notes on page 187. Perhaps priests should be afraid to try performing an exorcism without apprenticeship, even if requested by their bishop. It could be dangerous. However, Father Amorth answers such an objection in the following way: "Many times I have written that Satan is much more enraged when we take souls away from him through confession than when we take away bodies through exorcism. In fact, we cause the devil even greater rage by preaching, because faith sprouts from the word of God. Therefore, a priest who has the courage to preach and hear confessions should not be afraid to exorcise" (page 67)" In his introduction to "An Exorcist Tells His Story," Father Benedict Groeschel asks the reader to keep an open mind. Skepticism on this subject is widespread, and some will refuse to read the book. In fact, on spiritual grounds, it is better not to cultivate curiosity here, because curiosity can grow and lead to no good. But for those seeking information on this traditional theme, Father Amorth’s testimony may serve as a point of departure. It is not the last word but an introduction. Father Amorth wrote the book with the hope of re-establishing the pastoral practice of exorcism in the Catholic Church. We will only know in the future if his influence along with the publication of the new rite have been successful. Father Amorth followed this book with a second, "An Exorcist: More Stories," also published by Ignatius Press, 2002). It may be astonishing to learn that with the publication of the new "Rite of Exorcism," which Father Amorth calls "useless," there was separately published a notification from Cardinal Jorge Medina, then prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, that the rite of 1614 can be freely used with permission. Father Amorth’s personal concerns about the ineffectiveness of the new rite were settled by that notification. A scholarly analysis of this new rite has been published by Daniel Van Slyke as "The Ancestry and Theology of the Rite of Major Exorcism (1999/2004)," in Antiphon 10 (2006): 70-116. Van Slyke is associate professor of Church history at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury. Father Van Hove is on the staff of the White House Retreat Center in South St. Louis County. This is a revised version of an essay published in two scholarly publications earlier in this decade.

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