ROME — The den of the Catholic Church’s best-known exorcist is an unassuming place, a small third-floor room in a home for aging priests hidden in an obscure corner of southern Rome. I walk down the hospital-like hallway on my way to meet him, and the priest anticipates my knock before it happens. The door swings open, and there he is.
The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 89, peers up with goldfish eyes through his Hubble-telescope glasses.
“Enter,” says the diminutive priest.
The room is stark, outfitted with a hospital bed and numerous images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Then there are the mementos, which Amorth began collecting after he was appointed an exorcist back in the 1980s. He has conducted thousands of spiritual cleansings since then, keeping just a few of the bits and bobs he likes to call “the stuff that gets spewed from mouths.” Nails. Keys. Chains. Plastic figurines.
“What seems to be spit turns out to be a nail,” he said with a seen-it-all tone. “I don’t give it much importance.”
His services, though in great demand, are not always needed.
“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. “And this is enough to assuage the fears of those afraid of the Devil’s ills.”
But other times, he said, “there really is a diabolical influence.”
Twice, Amorth said, he saw possessed victims levitate. “We try to keep the person in the armchair,” he said, adding that demons “do it just to show off.”
An hour later, he invites me and an Italian colleague to witness an exorcism ourselves.
His exorcism room is a retrofitted, white-tiled kitchen on the first floor of the residence, decorated with more images of Jesus and Mary. A large statue of the Virgin, to which Amorth’s eyes constantly dart, sits in one corner of the room. When we enter, he is donning a black cassock draped in a purple stole vestment and is consoling a 40-something Neapolitan housewife. Her hair is well-coiffed, and her sparkly sneakers and Bulgari sunglasses say soccer mom more than demonic host. In fact, the woman, who gives her name only as Antonella, seems perfectly normal at first.
That will change.
Unlike the speedy rituals shown in the movies, real exorcisms are more of a slow burn, often involving years of repeated rites before the big cleanse. Antonella, who drove up to Rome from Naples with her husband, Michele, for her latest exorcism, claims to have been possessed by multiple demons for the better part of 17 years.
Both she and Michele blame the affliction on a curse by a Devil-worshiping childless friend who they say envied Antonella’s fecundity as a mother of two. They knew something was wrong, they said, when Antonella began throwing violent fits after receiving the Eucharist at Mass and going into trances in which she spoke Aramaic and German — languages she said she has never studied. It would typically take three grown men to subdue her, the couple said.
After four years of exorcisms with Amorth, however, her fits have become progressively less violent. She says she has begun to view the process as a long-term treatment of a terrible disease.
“But one of the soul,” she said.
After a round of praying, Amorth, aided by three assistants, finally launches his spiritual attack.
He begins chanting in Latin, commanding the presumed devils inside Antonella to reveal themselves. Several minutes pass before Antonella reacts. She begins choking, coughing up phlegm. She moans and rocks back and forth. As if in pain, she demands that the chanting stop.
Amorth refuses, shouting, “Tell me your name!”
Antonella writhes in her seat, hissing, “No! No!” She shakes her head, her eyes rolling to the back of their sockets. In an altered voice, she says, “I will not!”
“Tell me your name!” Amorth repeats, until finally she spits out a name: Asmodeus, a demon from scriptural lore.
“How many are you?” the priest demands, repeating the question as Antonella grunts and shakes her head violently.
Finally, she responds defiantly: “We are five!”
Amorth begins making the sign of the cross on her forehead, prompting her to recoil. The chanting and blessings go on for several more minutes before Antonella calms down. Ten minutes later, she comes around as if from a dream. She opens her eyes and slumps in her chair.
After his bout with the demons, Amorth simply shrugs.
“That,” he says, “was a light one.”