A new film starring Russell Crowe, The Pope's Exorcist, depicts an exorcist fighting demons and satanically possessed humans, while also uncovering a conspiracy that the Vatican has covered up – as if he didn't have enough on his plate. The film was, to a certain extent, inspired by true events.
There was a priest named Father Gabriele Amorth who claimed to have carried out around 60,000 exorcisms during his 30-year career (by our math, that's 5.5 exorcisms a day, assuming exorcists can convince Satan to leave the possessed but are absolutely terrible at negotiating time off). In 2012, he even made accusations about the Vatican covering up "crime of a sexual nature" involving a missing girl.
Where the film diverges from reality, of course, is in its depiction of exorcisms (even according to the actual society of exorcists Father Amorth created).
Born in 1925, Amorth was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1951. It wasn't until 1986, aged 61, that he was made an apprentice to Vatican exorcist Rev. Candido Amantini. He quickly set up a conference and organization for exorcists, before taking over as the Vatican's exorcist following Amantini's death in 1992.
Amorth, like the character based on him in The Pope's Exorcist, claimed that 98 percent of the people who sought an exorcism needed a psychiatrist, failing to identify that the other two percent probably also needed medical attention. Of the roughly 60,000 (his tally sometimes went as high as 160,000) exorcisms he performed, Amorth claimed that most only required a quick prayer, while less than 100 were full demonic possession. In these cases, Amorth told reporters that he had witnessed the possessed vomit up nails and key chains, and seen others levitate as they do in the film The Exorcist.
"The Devil told a woman that he would make her spit out a transistor radio, and lo and behold she started spitting out bits and pieces of a radio," he said of one session, according to his obituary in The Telegraph. "Such things are rare, but they happen.”
Amorth saw the film The Exorcist and proclaimed it to be "substantially exact" in its depiction of possession, and the battle between priest and the possessed.
“Do you know why the Devil is afraid of me?" Amorth once asked the film's director, adding "because I’m uglier than he is."
For the most part, however, the job differs from the movies.
“Most times there’s no actual diabolical presence, and my job lies in suggesting [to] those that come to me to live a life of faith and prayer,” he said before his death in 2016. “And this is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil’s ills.”
While Amorth claimed to only work with those who had sought and complied with medical professionals, it is worth remembering that possession is not real, and playing along with people who believe they are possessed (spoiler alert, even the boy who inspired The Exorcist was not really possessed) could do further harm to them. The society of exorcists Amorth created, however, is not happy with the depiction of exorcism in the new film on the grounds that it isn't positive enough.
“This way of narrating Don Amorth’s experience as an exorcist, in addition to being contrary to historical reality, distorts and falsifies what is truly lived and experienced during the exorcism of truly possessed people,” the association said in a statement to the Catholic News Agency. “In addition, it is offensive with regard to the state of suffering in which those who are victims of an extraordinary action of the devil find themselves."
“The end result is to instill the conviction that exorcism is an abnormal, monstrous, and frightening phenomenon, whose only protagonist is the devil, whose violent reactions can be faced with great difficulty,” the group added. “This is the exact opposite of what occurs in the context of exorcism celebrated in the Catholic Church in obedience to the directives imparted by it.”
Which, to be fair to it, sounds like a much better movie than a quick prayer followed by cake.