ROME -- Andres Cardenas sat in the back of the auditorium, opened his folder and took careful notes as Ernest Simoni, an 89-year-old Catholic cardinal, gave a master class on how to yell at the devil and purge Satan on your cellphone.
Simoni, who is Albanian, has decades of experience casting demons out of possessed bodies. Among his words were the advice that fasting sometimes helped the possessed, but that often you had to play hardball with Beelzebub by saying things like "shut up, Satan."
After jotting it all down, Cardenas, 36, explained he had come to Rome to learn about exorcisms "because it is a gift" he wanted to share with his parishioners back in El Espinal, Colombia. He was one of 300 Roman Catholics -- mostly clerics but also lay men and women furnished with authorization letters from their bishops -- to attend the 13th annual, weeklong "Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation" course that organizers hoped would recruit and train armies of potential exorcists to confront spreading demonic forces.
Participants paid about $372 (simultaneous translation was $309 extra) to attend the sessions, which were sponsored by conservative Catholic groups and held at the Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum, run by the conservative Legionaries of Christ religious order.
The would-be exorcists blamed the Internet and atheism for what they see as a spike in evil, but the urgency evident in the course also seemed to have something to do with a growing conservative view that the church has gone astray under Pope Francis, and that end times had drawn nigh.
The pope often speaks about the devil. In this month's apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, he wrote that while in biblical times, "epilepsy, for example, could easily be confused with demonic possession," the faithful should not conclude "that all the cases related in the Gospel had to do with psychological disorders and hence that the devil does not exist or is not at work."
Cardenas had no doubts about the pope's belief in the devil. Neither did Simoni, who has encountered evil firsthand, surviving decades in prisons and work camps for practicing his faith under the Albanian Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.
During this month's April 2018 keynote address, the cardinal answered the questions of Cardenas' fellow priests, like one from a French priest who asked him to share his exorcising secrets. "Pray without interruption," the cardinal said, reminding the audience that "more than anything, chastity" was key.
Asked if he preferred the ancient ritual or the new Vatican norms introduced in 1999, Simoni said, "Jesus knows all the languages."
Another priest asked how to tell the difference between bipolar and possessed personalities. "It's important to differentiate between psychopathic illnesses, neurasthenia, pathologies," the cardinal said. "Satan you can recognize."
"This theme will be tackled on Tuesday afternoon," interjected professor Giuseppe Ferrari, an organizer of the course, who runs a socio-religious research group.
The Vatican has had an uncomfortable relationship with some of its best-known African exorcists. Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, of Zambia, gained notoriety as a healer and exorcist in the 1990s, when he lived in Italy and where he was known as the "witch doctor bishop." He later married a Korean woman at a group wedding presided over by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and was excommunicated for ordaining four married men as priests.
More recently the Vatican has formally recognized an International Association of Exorcists in 2014, which keeps its 250 or so members updated on the latest best practices in confronting the devil. The death in 2016 of the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, Italy's most famous demon remover, prompted a new national outcry for recruits.
In the seminar Monday, Simoni reported dramatic successes. Asked by one priest how he knew if an exorcism had worked, he responded, "Ah, you can see it immediately," explaining that one possessed person went from jumping up and down and "keeping three or four men busy" to rising with a "joyous smile."
"Your exorcisms are very effective, it seems," said Ferrari, who then told the crowd, "We will meet back here after the coffee break."
The students headed for a long table with snacks and soda while reporters pressed Simoni about conducting exorcisms by cellphone, which is technically banned by church law. (He had done them "100, 1,000 times" he said.)
Cardinas waited in the aisle, his cellphone out, hoping to get a picture of himself with the cardinal. But the elderly exorcist shuffled past, leaving the Colombian grumbling, though not demonically.
Turning back to the topic at hand, Cardenas warned that black magic can be transmitted through screens ("American films are also a problem"), that demons enter the body "through the back of the brain," and that early traumas, like sexual abuse, can make a person vulnerable to homosexuality and the demons who, in grave cases, cause suicidal or violent tendencies and need to be chased away.
Organizers called the priests back in for a lesson on a bishop's role in exorcism, after which they broke for lunch. While budding exorcists waited in line for pasta behind texting students, or discussed the manifestations of pure evil over yogurt, Ferrari said he hoped to invite the pope's preferred exorcist, a Lutheran, to next year's conference.
Replenished, Cardenas and the others returned to the basement hall for the afternoon session, "Exorcism as a Ministry of Mercy and Consolation Amid the Bewilderment of Contemporary Society."
It was led by Archbishop Luigi Negri, who made news in 2015, when he was overheard on a train wishing for the death of Francis. The pontiff subsequently replaced him as the leader of the Ferrara archdiocese.
On Monday, Negri warned the priests what dark forces they would be up against.
"The actor of this evil -- this diabolical and evil entity," he explained, "is greater than any single man."
Religion on 04/28/2018
Print Headline: Cardinal: Shout at the devil or exorcise him by telephone