'Satan stepping up war for souls'
Forty years after The Exorcist scared the wits out of cinema audiences around the world, the Roman Catholic Church is training a new generation of priests to meet the growing demand for exorcism.
Dioceses across Italy and in other predominantly Catholic countries, such as Spain, are increasing the number of priests schooled in administering the rite of exorcism, intended to rid people of possession by the devil or his minions.
The rise in demonic possession reports is a result of more people dabbling in black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija-board conjuring, often exploring "the dark arts" with the help of information readily found on the internet, the church said.
The increase in the number of priests being trained to tackle the phenomenon is also an effort by the church to sideline self-proclaimed exorcists, and is tacit recognition that belief in Satan, once regarded by progressives as an embarrassment, is still very much alive.
The Diocese of Milan recently nominated seven new exorcists, the bishop of Naples appointed three new ones a couple of years ago and the Catholic Church in Sardinia sent three priests for exorcism training in Rome, amid concern that the Mediterranean island, particularly its mountainous, tradition-bound interior, is a hotbed of occultism.
In Spain, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, the Archbishop of Madrid, chose eight priests to undergo special training in May to confront what he described as "an unprecedented rise" in "demonic possession". The church in Spain was coming across many cases that "go beyond the competence of psychologists" and they were occurring with "a striking frequency", the archbishop said.
"Diabolical possessions are on the increase as a result of people subscribing to occultism," said Father Francesco Bamonte, president of the International Association for Exorcists.
"The few exorcists that we have in the dioceses are often not able to handle the enormous number of requests for help," he said.
The association was founded in 1993 by Father Gabriele Amorth, who served as the Vatican's chief exorcist. He said that during the papacy of Benedict XVI the sex abuse scandals that engulfed the Catholic Church were proof that the Antichrist was waging war on the Holy See.
The church insists that most of the people who claim to be possessed by the devil have a mental health problem, such as paranoia or depression. Priests generally advise them to seek medical help.
But in a few cases it is judged that the person really has been taken over by evil and an exorcism is required.
"Demonic" possession manifests itself in people babbling incomprehensibly and vomiting nails, pieces of metal and shards of glass, according to those who believe in the phenomenon.
They must undergo the official Catholic rite of exorcism, which involves a consecrated priest invoking the name of God.
Monsignor Bruno Forte, a theologian and the Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, said the Church teaches that evil exists and that in extreme cases it can take possession of a person.
There has been a streak of popular superstition in the Catholic Church for centuries - and it lingers.
In November, Pope Francis said that, though "God created man to be incorruptible", the Devil entered the world and there are those "who belong to him".