ROME -- The Roman Catholic Church is facing a shortage that you might not have heard about: qualified exorcists.
About 100 priests rose in prayer yesterday, asked St. Mary for protection, then sat down to an eight-week study of exorcism and how to distinguish and fight true demonic possession.
The course at Rome's Regina Apostolorum, a pontifical university, represents the first time a Vatican-sanctioned study at this level has been dedicated to exorcism.
In Italy, the number of official exorcists has soared over the past 20 years to between 300 and 400, church officials say. But they are not enough to handle the avalanche of requests for help from hundreds of tormented people who believe they are possessed. In the United States, the shortage is even more acute.
Only a small percentage of the afflicted are judged to be in need of exorcism, and learning how to tell the difference between demonic infiltration and other psychological or physical traumas is the main goal of the priestly students taking the course at the Regina Apostolorum.
"When you're dealing with a reality like the devil," said the Rev. Clement Machado, 39, of Canada, "you can't just learn the theoretical. You need the pragmatic experience. . . . It's such uncharted territory."
Italy's most famous exorcist, the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, is not participating in the program but was full of praise for it.
"It's very positive," Amorth, 79, said in an interview this week. "I hope it will increase the number of exorcists." Without a doubt, he said, it will increase interest in the ancient and oft-maligned ritual.
Exorcism -- the use of prayer to rid a person or place of the devil or demonic spirits -- has its roots in early Christianity. It fell out of favor around the 18th century, after the Enlightenment and advances in science and modern philosophy, but has experienced something of a revival in the last couple of decades. The reemergence is partly because of Pope John Paul II's belief that Satan is a real presence in daily life that must be battled.
Many exorcists avoid publicity, sensitive to the sensationalist portrayal of their practice as seen in Hollywood movies and pulp novels. That made the insights offered in the pontifical course, opened to the media for its inaugural session only, all the more unusual.
"The biggest obstacle has been the lack of training of priests and bishops, who haven't felt sufficiently equipped to confront" what the church believes is a rising obsession with satanic cults, witchcraft, and the occult, said Giuseppe Ferrari, an academic specializing in social-religious phenomena who lectured by videophone from Bologna.
"Satanism is very much in fashion now," said the Rev. Paulo Scarafoni, rector of the Regina Apostolorum, which is run by the conservative Legionaries of Christ.
The Rev. Gabriele Nanni, an exorcist from the town of Modena, told the priest-students that medical doctors can be consulted to eliminate physical or psychological causes behind a patient's distress. The symptoms of authentic demonic possession, he said, include utter revulsion to holy symbols such as a crucifix or baptismal oils. Sometimes, he said, the patient enters a deep trance.
The cleansing ritual, he told students, must be kept simple, with much prayer and without pride in one's accomplishments.
"An exorcism is tantamount to a miracle -- an extraordinary intervention of God," Nanni said. "It's not that we poor men are so powerful to be able to banish the devil. It's that God gives us the power."
Nowhere is the shortage of exorcists seen as more serious than in the United States, where skepticism about the practice abounds. There are fewer than a dozen official exorcists at US dioceses, and it is a topic that most American priests seem to avoid.