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Ritual of Dealing With Demons Undergoes a Revival

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 11, 2008

POCZERNIN, Poland -- This wind-swept village is bracing for an invasion of demons, thanks to a priest who believes he can defeat Satan.

The Rev. Andrzej Trojanowski, a soft-spoken Pole, plans to build a "spiritual oasis" that will serve as Europe's only center dedicated to performing exorcisms. With the blessing of the local Catholic archbishop and theological support from the Vatican, the center will aid a growing number of Poles possessed by evil forces or the devil himself, he said.

"This is my task, this is my purpose -- I want to help these people," said Trojanowski, who has worked as an exorcist for four years. "There is a group of people who cannot get relief through any other practices and who need peace."

Exorcism -- the church rite of expelling evil spirits from tortured souls -- is making a comeback in Catholic regions of Europe. Last July, more than 300 practitioners gathered in the Polish city of Czestochowa for the fourth International Congress of Exorcists.

About 70 priests serve as trained exorcists in Poland, about double the number of five years ago. An estimated 300 exorcists are active in Italy. Foremost among them: the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 82, who performs exorcisms daily in Rome and is dean of Europe's corps of demon-battling priests.

"People don't pray anymore, they don't go to church, they don't go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it," Amorth said in an interview. "There's a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus."

Amorth and other priests said the resurgence in exorcisms has been encouraged by the Vatican, which in 1999 formally revised and upheld the rite for the first time in almost 400 years.

Although a Vatican official denied reports in December of a campaign to train more exorcists, supporters said informal efforts began under Pope John Paul II -- himself an occasional demon chaser -- and have accelerated under Pope Benedict XVI. A Catholic university in Rome began offering courses in exorcism in 2005 and has drawn students from around the globe.

One of the recruits is the Rev. Wieslaw Jankowski, a priest with the Institute for Studies on the Family, a counseling center outside Warsaw. He said priests at the institute realized they needed an exorcist on staff after encountering an increase in people plagued by evil.

Typical cases, he said, include people who turn away from the church and embrace New Age therapies, alternative religions or the occult. Internet addicts and yoga devotees are also at risk, he said.

"This is a service which is sorely needed," said Jankowski, who holds a doctorate in spiritual theology. "The number of people who need help is intensifying right now."

Jankowski cited the case of a woman who asked for a divorce days after renewing her wedding vows as part of a marriage counseling program. What was suspicious, he said, was how the wife suddenly developed a passionate hatred for her husband.

"According to what I could perceive, the devil was present and acting in an obvious way," he said. "How else can you explain how a wife, in the space of a couple of weeks, could come to hate her own husband, a man who is a good person?"

Jankowski said that an archbishop granted him the authority last October to perform exorcisms and that he's been busy ever since. As for the afflicted wife? "We're still working with her," he said.

Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons -- which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench.

In those cases, the exorcists must confront the devil directly, using the power of the church to order it to abandon its host. More often, however, priests perform what some of them refer to as "soft exorcisms," using prayer to rid people of evil influences that control their lives.

Exorcisms remain a touchy subject even among priests who perform them, aware that the rite is associated with medieval witch-burnings and the 1973 Hollywood horror film, "The Exorcist."

More recent horror stories have also taken their toll. In Germany, memories are still fresh of a 23-year-old Bavarian woman who died of starvation in 1976 after two priests -- thinking she was possessed -- subjected her to more than 60 exorcisms. In 2002, a German bishop resigned after a woman accused him of sexually abusing her during an exorcism.

Exorcists said they are careful not to treat people suffering from mental illness, and that they regularly consult with psychologists and physicians. At the same time, they said, conventional medical therapy often neglects spiritual ailments.

"My remedy is based on spiritual means, which cannot be replaced by any pharmaceutical remedies," said Trojanowski, the priest who is overseeing plans for the new exorcism center. "I do not stop at the level of just treating symptoms. I'm very much interested in the soul of a person. As a priest, I keep asking questions a doctor will never ask."

Trojanowski is a priest in the northwestern Polish port city of Szczecin. He said that he sees as many as 20 people a week who are under the influence of evil spirits, but that he needs more space to treat them properly. At his exorcism center, he said, people could check in for a few days and receive ministrations.

Plans for the center were announced in December after an archbishop gave approval to build it on church land in Poczernin, a village surrounded by cabbage fields about 20 miles outside Szczecin.

The news came as a bit of a shock to the villagers, who said they hadn't been consulted and weren't sure they liked the idea of demons coming home to roost.

"People are worried about the potential for crazy people coming here," said Ksawery Nyks, 50, a longtime resident. He said most people were opposed unless the church could guarantee the exorcism center would have adequate security.

Others were more sympathetic. "I don't think it's going to harm us," said Romnalda Banach, 46, who runs a food shop on the muddy street that runs through the heart of the village. "Every person, if he or she needs help, should be able to get it somehow."

Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.

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