The would-be exorcists blamed the internet and atheism for what they see as a spike in evil, but the urgency evident in the course also seemed to have something to do with a growing conservative view that the church has gone astray under Pope Francis, and that end times had drawn nigh.
The pope recently had conservative heads spinning when he was quoted, incorrectly according to the Vatican, by an Italian reporter with credibility issues as not believing in hell. “Beyond what is tolerable,” the American cardinal Raymond Burke, a leader of the conservative resistance to Francis, said at the time.
In fact, the pope often speaks about the devil. In this month’s apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, he wrote that while in biblical times, “epilepsy, for example, could easily be confused with demonic possession,” the faithful should not conclude “that all the cases related in the Gospel had to do with psychological disorders and hence that the devil does not exist or is not at work.”
Father Cárdenas had no doubts about the pope’s belief in the devil. Neither did Cardinal Simoni, who has encountered evil firsthand, surviving decades in prisons and work camps for practicing his faith under the Albanian Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.
During Monday’s keynote address, the cardinal answered the questions of Father Cárdenas’ fellow priests, like one from a French priest who asked him to share his exorcising secrets. “Pray without interruption,” the cardinal said, reminding the audience that “more than anything, chastity” was key.
Asked if he preferred the ancient ritual or the new Vatican norms introduced in 1999, Cardinal Simoni said, “Jesus knows all the languages.”
Another priest asked how to tell the difference between bipolar and possessed personalities. “It’s important to differentiate between psychopathic illnesses, neurasthenia, pathologies,” the cardinal said. “Satan you can recognize.”
“This theme will be tackled on Tuesday afternoon,” interjected Professor Giuseppe Ferrari, an organizer of the course, who runs a socio-religious research group.
At that, Father Cárdenas perused his blue program, illustrated with Raphael’s Transfiguration. On Tuesday, he could listen to an exorcist lecture on “The Prayer of Liberation, a Theological and Pastoral Approach” or “The Auxiliary Exorcist: Skills and Duties.”
On Wednesday, there was “Magical, Esoteric and Occult Links to Some Alternative and Energy-giving Therapies,” followed by Friday’s “The Exorcist: Life, Choices and Mistake.” But he was especially interested in Wednesday’s talk on “Witchcraft in Africa.”
The Vatican has had an uncomfortable relationship with some of its best-known African exorcists. Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, of Zambia, gained notoriety as a healer and exorcist in the 1990s, when he lived in Italy and where he was known as the “witch doctor bishop.” He later married a Korean woman at a group wedding presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and was excommunicated for ordaining four married men as priests.
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More recently the Vatican has formally recognized an International Association of Exorcists in 2014, which keeps its 250 or so members updated on the latest best practices in confronting the devil. The death in 2016 of Father Gabriele Amorth, Italy’s most famous demon remover, prompted a new national outcry for recruits.
An exorcism documentary, “Libera Nos,” won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2016. The film follows a rotund Sicilian priest in a friar’s frock and wool hat; in one scene, he yanks on the bangs of a woman who grunts at his command that she love her neighbors.
In a separate cellphone conversation in the film with a possessed woman, the priest implores, “I exorcise you, Satan.” He then signs off with, “O.K., talk soon,” and “say hello to your husband for me.”
(“It’s a good way to learn how not to do an exorcism,” Professor Ferrari said.)
In the seminar on Monday, Cardinal Simoni reported dramatic successes. Asked by one priest how he knew if an exorcism had worked, he responded, “Ah, you can see it immediately,” explaining that one possessed person went from jumping up and down and “keeping three or four men busy” to rising with a “joyous smile.”
“Your exorcisms are very effective, it seems,” said Professor Ferrari, who then told the crowd, “We will meet back here after the coffee break.”
The students headed for a long table with snacks and soda while reporters pressed Cardinal Simoni about conducting exorcisms by cellphone, which is technically banned by church law. (He had done them “100, 1,000 times” he said.)
Father Cárdenas waited in the aisle, his cellphone out, hoping to get a picture of himself with the cardinal. But the elderly exorcist shuffled past, leaving the Colombian grumbling, though not demonically.
Turning back to the topic at hand, Father Cárdenas warned that black magic can be transmitted through screens (“American films are also a problem”), that demons enter the body “through the back of the brain,” and that early traumas, like sexual abuse, can make a person vulnerable to homosexuality and the demons who, in grave cases, cause suicidal or violent tendencies and need to be chased away.
A few feet away, The Rev. Joseph Poggemeyer, from Toledo, Ohio, said exorcists needed to confront the evil spread on the internet. He said that every diocese should have an exorcist on hand, but that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its “confusion” had eroded exorcism expertise and deprived seminarians of instruction in demonology.
“That was simply lost,” he said. “A lot of dioceses in the United States haven’t had exorcists for a very long time.”
Organizers called the priests back in for a lesson on a bishop’s role in exorcism, after which they broke for lunch. While budding exorcists waited in line for pasta behind texting students, or discussed the manifestations of pure evil over yogurt, Mr. Ferrari said he hoped to invite the pope’s preferred exorcist, a Lutheran, to next year’s conference.
Replenished, Father Cárdenas and the others returned to the basement hall for the afternoon session, “Exorcism as a Ministry of Mercy and Consolation Amid the Bewilderment of Contemporary Society.”
It was led by Archbishop Luigi Negri, who made news in 2015, when he was overheard on a train wishing for the death of Pope Francis. The pontiff subsequently replaced him as the leader of the Ferrara archdiocese.
On Monday, Archbishop Negri warned the priests what dark forces they would be up against.
“The actor of this evil — this diabolical and evil entity,” he explained, “is greater than any single man.”