A university recognized by the Vatican is offering a course in exorcism and demonic possession for a second time, concerned about the devil's lure -- particularly among young Italians.
Standing in solemn prayer, about 120 priests, lay people and theology students began the course, which is intended to clear up misconceptions and help students understand what makes people turn to the occult.
The opening class of the "Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation" course this month at the Pontifical Academy Regina Apostolorum featured lectures about liturgical and spiritual aspects of Satanism and problems related to exorcism.
"The aim of this course is to express a clear vision of the phenomenon," said Italian Bishop Andrea Gemma, a leading exorcist who delivered the opening lecture.
"Exorcism . . . is an important prayer of the church to help those who believe to be, or who really are, suffering from a diabolic infestation," he told his audience.
Lectures, which will be broadcast via video to other pontifical institutes, focus on subjects that range from theological and historical aspects of Satanism to legal and medical issues.
Pope Benedict XVI welcomed a large group of Italian exorcists who visited the Vatican on Sept. 14 and encouraged them to carry on in their work "in the service of the church."
Exorcism, the Roman Catholic rite in which demons are expelled from "possessed" persons, is usually administered by priests with the permission of a bishop.
"Devil's action is much more common than people may think," Gemma said, adding that he performs at least four exorcisms a week. He also said that youngsters were particularly at risk.
A former papal aide, the late Cardinal Jacques Martin, wrote in his memoirs that Pope John Paul II performed the exorcism rite in 1982, on an Italian woman who was screaming and writhing.
When the first course began in February, Italy was gripped by a gruesome case in which members of a Satanic sect were being investigated in the deaths of three people. Two people were later convicted in the murders, which occurred in woods near Milan.
In recent years, police have discovered sites in the Castelli hill towns outside Rome where they say Satanic cult followers hold black Masses.
The Rev. Gabriele Nanni, an exorcist and lecturer in the course, said there are four widely accepted signs of possession: "speaking in unknown languages, showing a disproportionate physical strength beyond one's natural capacity, the repulsion to sacred things such as crucifix and prayers, and knowledge of events that have happened far away, in terms of times and places." Some of the signs were depicted in the 1973 movie, "The Exorcist."
Students received a paper detailing a 10-point guide to recognize and prevent interest in the occult. It included a suggestion to parents to monitor whether their children were wearing strange pendants or T-shirts, listening to loud music on their home stereos or watching too many horror movies.