Father Gabriele Amorth was a former war-time decorated partisan who became the Catholic Church’s best-known and most controversial exorcist, battling demons and cases of possession over three decades, and claimed to have carried out more than 160,000 exorcisms.
The colourfully out-spoken priest, appointed exorcist of the Diocese of Rome by Cardinal Ugo Poletti in 1985, “spoke to the Devil every day”. In 2004, he explained, “I talk to him in Latin, he replies in Italian . . . I have been wrestling with him, day in, day out, for 14 years.”
Never one to shy away from controversy, Amorth sparked outrage when he warned against the dangers to children of celebrating Hallowe’en and of reading JK Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books, which he said “encouraged the cult of black magic and wizardry”, adding, “In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses.”
Further consternation arose when, in 2011, he denounced yoga’s popularity, which he believed risked opening a gateway for evil spirits, and fostered the worship of Hinduism and other Eastern religions. “Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he commented during a film festival, where he was invited to introduce The Rite’ a film about exorcism.
In an interview with the daily La Repubblica, Amorth hailed the 1973 cult film The Exorcist as his favourite film and as an accurate depiction of what it was like to be possessed by Satan although, “of course the special effects are exaggerated but it is substantially exact, based on a respectable novel which mirrored a true story.”
When talking about his exorcisms, he was aware that the great majority of those who sought him merely had mental health problems such as schizophrenia or were under “demoniac influence”. “It is essential not to confuse demonic possession with ordinary illness,” he said. “The symptoms of possession often include violent headaches and stomach cramps, but you must always go to the doctor before you go to the exorcist . . . of the thousands of patients I have seen, only a hundred or so have been truly possessed.” In that he included the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and more recently, Isil.
During his exorcisms, Amorth acknowledged seeing possessed victims levitate and on occasion witnessed the inexplicable, such as a boy of 11 easily throwing aside three burly policemen who were pinning him down, and a ten-year old boy lifting a huge table. “I felt his muscles afterwards,” he said, “He had the strength of Satan in him.”
He claimed he saw the possessed vomiting rose petals and long pieces of iron and would often hear patients speak in voices, even in languages that were not their own. “When the possessed dribble and slobber, and need cleaning up, I do that too. Seeing people vomit doesn’t bother me. The exorcist has one principal duty - to free human beings from the fear of the Devil,” he said.
He believed that women were particularly vulnerable to Satan. In 1996, it was reported that of the 40 or so exorcisms carried out in Rome every week, around 80 per cent of the “possessed” were middle-aged, middle-class women, leading Amorth to explain that women were “more vulnerable because they are the ones who mostly go to see clairvoyants, mediums, card readers, attend séances and belong to satanic sects”, speculating that “it could be that the Devil wants to use them to get at men like Eve did to Adam”.
Amorth maintained the need to be ever vigilant, warning, “The Devil is always hiding and the thing he wants above all is that we don’t believe he exists.”
Born in Fascist Italy, in 1925, in the city of Modena, the Emilia-Romagna region, northern Italy, Gabriele Pietro Amorth was one of five brothers, who grew up in a deeply religious family with comfortable surroundings thanks to his father and grandfather being prominent lawyers. By the time he was 14, he was already contemplating his calling, particularly after a close friend joined the priesthood.
However, with the fall of the dictator Mussolini and the German occupation of Italy in 1943, Amorth immediately joined the Catholic partisans of the ‘Brigata Italia’ to fight the Nazis, quickly rising to become commander of the third battalion until the end of the war, whereupon he received the military cross. Known as “Alberto”, on three occasions he was captured, and three times he escaped; days before his death he was awarded the prestigious Medaglia della Liberazione by the prefect of Rome in recognition of the “important role” he played fighting the Nazis. After the war he studied law and was briefly deputy to the future Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the Young Christian Democrats. He then joined the Society of St Paul in 1946 and was ordained in 1951.
It was not until 1985, after over 30 years as a priest, that Amorth had any involvement with exorcism. Unexpectedly, he was appointed assistant to the leading exorcist in Rome, Candido Amantini, and was shocked at the demand for his services, with Amantini seeing up to 80 people every morning. Soon Amorth was taking appointments with ‘the troubled’ from as far away as England and Spain, where they had not been able to find an exorcist.
In 1990, he co-founded the International Association of Exorcists in order to make other priests aware of the “dramatic reality of exorcism”, which he claimed had been often undervalued. The association was later officially recognised by the Vatican. He was president until he retired, in 2000, later becoming its honorary president for life. Amorth defined exorcism as “a form of charity that benefits people who suffer. Without any doubt, it is an act of benevolence both corporal and spiritual”.
Commenting on the sex abuse scandals that had engulfed the Catholic Church it recent times, he said it was a consequence of the fact the Devil lived “in the Vatican” and proof that the Antichrist was waging war against the Holy See, although some believe this provided too easy a moral escape hatch for priestly abusers. The possessed person, Amorth argued, “isn’t a bad person, only a suffering one”.
Amorth penned several books but An Exorcist Tells His Story (1994), describing his work and marginalisation, became a European bestseller and was revised several times. He was later highly critical of the reluctance of bishops to appoint priests to the post and of the church’s tendency to speak about the “spirit of evil” rather than Evil incarnate. “I felt I had been called to an apostolate among people who suffered greatly and whom nobody understood - neither their relatives, their doctors nor their priests,” he explained.
He died from lung disease a few weeks after being admitted to a Rome hospital.