“I don’t think I will ever be the same having seen this astonishing thing,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. “I am not talking about some cult, I am talking about an exorcism by the Catholic Church in Rome.”
A representative for the Vatican countered the claim that it had invited Friedkin, noting that it currently does not have an official exorcist. However, the spokesman told the AFP that it is possible Friedkin was confusing another Catholic initiative with the Vatican.
That’s not to say the Catholic Church lacks exorcists. In 1999, the church updated its manual on exorcisms: De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam, or Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. It was, perhaps, overdue — its predecessor had been written in 1614.
The recent revision emphasizes that exorcists must first rule that possession is not mental illness, through medical and psychiatric evaluation. De Exorcismis also opines that media coverage and other spectacle be eschewed. According to Friedkin, “nobody has ever photographed” an official exorcism, making his purported documentation of the event all the more momentous.
De Exorcismis, of course, still refers to devils and a sentient Satan on the hunt for souls. As Chilean Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez said in a presentation in 1999, however, it has “more sober language, with fewer adjectives than in the previous one,” according to the Guardian.
Official exorcisms are few and far between. But demand for exorcisms, to hear the Church tell it, jumped in the latter half of the last century and picked up steam toward its end. By 2004, Pope John Paul II called for every bishop to have an exorcist in his diocese. Ten years later, the Vatican officially recognized the 250-strong International Association of Exorcists. And by 2015, the Catholic Register reported that the “once dying trade” now claims over 100 North American members.
Exorcist and Toronto priest Gary Thomas, who told the Register he’d performed about a dozen exorcisms in the past decade, says exorcisms have drama, though they are not a “Ghostbusters”-style race to the scene. “Some of what you would see in a movie, some of it is accurate and some of it is not.” But spectacle is not the point, he noted at Vice — the ministry of exorcism is an exercise in healing.
Pope Francis has been a frequent and outspoken critic of Satan, also stoking support for exorcisms. “Pope Francis never stops talking about the Devil; it’s constant,” an anonymous bishop told the Washington Post in 2014. Catholic critics say Francis is catalyzing superstition within the Church; others, like Thomas, argue that it’s a reaction to growing evil influences. “Society is becoming rapidly more pagan,” as the exorcist said to the Register.
Friedkin is not Catholic but says he believes in Jesus’s teachings. He also believes in the validity of the exorcism at Saint Louis University that served as a basis for his movie.
“When I started I thought I was making a horror film and then the priest, who was the president of Georgetown University (in Washington DC), let me read these diaries and I knew that it was not a horror film,” Friedkin said, according to AFP. “This was a case of exorcism.”