Gabriele Amorth, Roman Catholic priest known as the Vatican's exorcist, dies at 91

He used to call himself the Vatican’s exorcist, and that was a pretty apt description.

Officially, Father Gabriele Amorth performed exorcisms for the Rome Diocese. He reveled in the role and was never shy about talking about what is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most ancient, and controversial, religious rites.

“Exorcism is God’s true miracle,” Amorth told the Los Angeles Times in an interview in 2004.

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

Amorth died this month  after a long illness, a Rome hospital where he had received treatment announced. He was 91. 

Amorth helped promote the ritual of banishing the devil from people or places as it experienced something of a comeback in the 2000s. Exorcisms were embraced by then-Pope John Paul II, who revealed having performed two or three of them himself. 

Amorth claimed to have performed scores of exorcisms, a ritual largely unchanged since medieval times that involves a series of prayers to denounce and drive out Satan. It enjoyed a renaissance as people sought a religious explanation for the evil they viewed in the world.

The gregarious, Italian-born priest blamed the devil for a host of ills, including pornography, drug abuse and secularism. He even saw Satan lurking in magical-wizard tales such as the “Harry Potter” series.

The Catholic Church teaches that Satan is real, but Amorth’s zealous pursuit of exorcisms — and his showmanship — made more progressive sectors of the church uneasy. Some priests and others prefer a more scientific approach to what many see as mental illness, not demonic possession.

Exorcists, who are appointed by bishops, are supposed to ensure that the person seeking an exorcism has first sought medical attention. Only when a medical answer is ruled out is the priest allowed to perform the ritual.

Amorth said in the 2004 interview that he followed those rules, but added: "I know there are a lot of skeptics. The presence of the devil is often ignored."

He also said that he loved the classic horror movie, “The Exorcist,” directed by William Friedkin in 1973 and based on a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty. A few of the special effects might have been a tad exaggerated, Amorth said, but the movie illuminated the work of an exorcist and the dangers of devils.

Although he had retired, Amorth held forth for many years from the compound belonging to the Congregation of the Society of St. Paul on the edge of Rome’s historic center.

He had a well-worn office, its walls painted sea green and adorned with crucifixes and pictures of the Archangel Michael and saints. There, he would see members of his troubled flock — many a day at the height of his activities — and, when he deemed it necessary, perform exorcisms.

He would joke that the chamber was far from the street, so that passersby couldn’t hear the screams. Sometimes, he claimed, the patients “vomited” odd objects such as AA batteries or screws. He said that they didn’t actually vomit the items but that Satan made them appear in the victims’ mouths.

Amorth was the author of several books on exorcism and other religious rites, including “An Exorcist Tells His Story,” translated into English in 1999. He founded the International Assn. of Exorcists and helped train numerous exorcists.

“Now he rests from his many battles with the devil,” the Spanish theologian Father Jose Antonio Fortea told the Catholic News Agency in Rome.

There was no immediate information on survivors.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

Twitter: @TracyKWilkinson


UPDATES:

9:15 p.m., Sept. 24: This article was updated with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:50 a.m., Sept. 17.

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