Is Pope Francis an exorcist? This is the question many are asking after Francis blessed a man in a wheelchair after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday. While the pope put his hands on the man’s head and prayed over him, the man heaved deeply, shook, then slumped in his chair.
Exorcists who were surveyed by the television station of the Italian bishops’ conference said there is “no doubt” that the pope either performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from Satan.
The Vatican said Francis “didn’t intend to perform any exorcism. But as he often does for the sick or suffering, he simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering who was presented to him.”
News reports have focused on Francis’ apparent interest in demonic activity. This is from the AP:
Fueling the speculation is Francis’ obsession with Satan, a frequent subject of his homilies, and an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.
Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic “The Exorcist”?
In his very first homily as pope on March 14, Francis warned cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel the day after he was elected that “he who doesn’t pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”
He has since mentioned the devil on a handful of occasions, most recently in a May 4 homily when in his morning Mass in the Vatican hotel chapel he spoke of the need for dialogue — except with Satan.
“With the prince of this world you can’t have dialogue: Let this be clear!” he warned.
Experts said Francis’ frequent invocation of the devil is a reflection both of his Jesuit spirituality and his Latin American roots, as well as a reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization.
“The devil’s influence and presence in the world seems to fluctuate in quantity inversely proportionate to the presence of Christian faith,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University. “So, one would expect an upswing in his malicious activity in the wake of de-Christianization and secularization” in the world and a surge in things like drug use, pornography and superstition.
In recent years, Rome’s pontifical universities have hosted several courses for would-be exorcists on the rite, updated in 1998 and contained in a little red leather-bound booklet. The rite is relatively brief, consisting of blessings with holy water, prayers and an interrogation of the devil in which the exorcist demands to know the devil’s name and when it will leave the possessed person.
Only a priest authorized by a bishop can perform an exorcism, and canon law specifies that the exorcist must be “endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life.”
While belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching, the Holy See does urge prudence, particularly to ensure that the afflicted person isn’t merely psychologically ill.
The Rev. Giulio Maspero, a Rome-based systematic theologian who has witnessed or participated in more than a dozen exorcisms, says he’s fairly certain that Francis’ prayer on Sunday was either a full-fledged exorcism or a more simple prayer to “liberate” the young man from demonic possession.
So, what do you think? Was Francis performing an exorcism? Do you even believe in exorcisms? Do you agree with the 70 percent of Americans who believe in the devil? Or are you a skeptic who chalks this up to medieval superstition?