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For exorcist, the devil's in the details

ROME -- In a small room, well away from the street so that no one hears the screams, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth does battle with Satan. He is a busy man.

As the Vatican's top exorcist, Amorth performs the mysterious, ancient ritual dozens of times a week. A confused world engulfed in tragedy and chaos is turning increasingly to black magic, the occult, and fortune-telling, he said, proof that the devil is having a field day.

"These customs open the door to evil spirits and to demonic possessions," Amorth said. "Exorcism is God's true miracle."

The practice of exorcism -- driving demons and evil spirits from people or places -- has been experiencing a renaissance of late, from Europe to the Americas to Africa. In part, the rite owes its popularity to the need of people to believe that the devil is real, philosophers say, and that it is possible to get rid of him.

In Italy, the number of exorcists has increased more than tenfold in the last decade to about 300 nationwide; this year, one of the country's largest archdioceses established a special task force to handle the growing demand.

Amorth is arguably the world's most famous practitioner of exorcism and certainly its greatest promoter. He cofounded the International Association of Exorcists, an organization of priests that meets in secrecy every two years, and he remains its president emeritus. Author of numerous books on the subject, he has had a hand in recruiting, training, or inspiring most of today's exorcists.

Amorth said his calendar is always full. "I have three this afternoon," he said matter-of-factly recently.

With little prompting, he displayed his equipment, sheathed in a weathered leather bag that is always at his side: a silver and wooden crucifix, an aspergillum for sprinkling holy water, and a container of baptismal oil. He acted out simple steps from the ritual, wrapping his purple priest's stole around the shoulders of a visitor and making the sign of the cross on her forehead.

In an exorcism, that opening is followed by prayers, anointment with the holy water and oil, and then a demand to the devil that he state his name and be gone. Anything can happen: If the person is possessed, and that's a rarity, he or she will often turn violent and fight the intervention, Amorth said.

"I've never been afraid of the devil," Amorth said. "In fact, I can say he is often scared of me."

Amorth, who turned 80 this weekend, is a serious but not frightening figure. He has intense, piercing eyes encircled by dark rings, yet his features also relax easily into a smile and chuckle. Oval-faced, balding, and dressed in a long black cloak, he's more Uncle Fester than Max von Sydow.

The devil is a stubborn foe, however, and no patient (as the possessed are called) is cured in a single exorcism, Amorth said. In fact, the "liberation" can take years -- but Amorth always wins, he insisted.

A case in point is Lucia, a 44-year-old mother of two. She had been undergoing exorcisms for 13 years, until her priest finally took her to Amorth.

Her symptoms were typical; the possessed experience a visceral, utter repulsion of all things holy. Each time the priest initiated the ritual, she would enter a trance, rant in languages she didn't know, and show violent, superhuman strength. It was more than they could do to hold her down, her husband, Renzo, recalled. At one point, she vomited whole needles, her priest said, a symbol of diabolical torment.

"I know people say we are crazy," Renzo said. "You can't believe this stuff until you see it."

Amorth acknowledged that quite a few people -- including senior prelates in his church -- think all of this is more than a little nutty. It doesn't help, perhaps, that Amorth sees the devil in many places: A couple of years ago, he fought to ban publication of the Harry Potter books because, he said, they teach sorcery to children.

"I know there are a lot of skeptics," he said. "The presence of the devil is often ignored."

Lucia, the patient, believes that her troubles started when an enemy -- a man who wanted her as a lover but whom she spurned -- cast an evil spell on her. She fell ill, experienced terrible pains, lost weight. Doctors conducted tests and operated on her, but nothing cured her. She consulted spiritual healers, but the rituals they subjected her to left her bruised and battered and still in anguish.

Finally she turned to an exorcist, Father Vincenzo Taraborelli, a protege of Amorth. Confronted with what he describes as his most difficult case -- the woman attempted suicide more than once -- Taraborelli turned to Amorth.

Now, Lucia feels strong and well on the way to full recovery -- ready, as she put it, to live again

The practice of exorcism in Christianity can be traced to at least the second century AD. It enjoyed certain popularity through the ages but by the 18th century had fallen out of favor and was largely abandoned by the church, thanks in part to the Enlightenment, rationalism, and advances in science.

Exorcisms have made a comeback, spurred in part by the rise of the Catholic charismatic renewal movement, a Pentecostal faction that believes in healing and prophecy, and by the favors of the current pope, who has frequently referred to Satan as a dangerous force in the world.

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