Before his death in 2016, Father Gabriele Amorth claimed to have performed over 100,000 exorcisms. Working as the official exorcist of the Vatican, he performed a service that many have never seen outside of horror films. Now, his story is the basis of such a film: The Pope’s Exorcist, starring Russell Crowe, which came out last week.
Born in Modena, Italy, in 1925, Amorth joined the Italian resistance during World War II. He earned a law degree and worked as a journalist before becoming a priest in 1951.
In 1986, Amorth was appointed as an assistant to Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the chief exorcist of the diocese of Rome, whom he later succeeded. He remained in the position until his death. In 1990, he wrote the book An Exorcist Tells His Story, which was translated into 30 different languages and became a bestseller. Around the same time, Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists. The association, which still exists today, is not impressed with the new film.
“This way of narrating Don Amorth’s experience as an exorcist, in addition to being contrary to historical reality, distorts and falsifies what is truly lived and experienced during the exorcism of truly possessed people,” says the association in a statement, per the Catholic News Agency’s Kevin J. Jones.
Exorcism has a long history in Christianity. The practice appears in the New Testament, which depicts Jesus casting out evil spirits in the Gospel of Mark. “Jesus’ exorcisms were evidence of his authority over the devil,” Rob Haskell, a theologian specializing in the New Testament, told History.com’s Elizabeth Yuko last year. “They showed that he had spiritual power.”
While Protestants performed exorcisms, the practice fell out of vogue around the 1600s. Today, exorcism is associated primarily with Catholicism. As recently as 2017, Pope Francis told a group of priests that they “should not hesitate” to call in exorcists when necessary.
Exorcisms have long been a subject of fascination for Hollywood and horror fans. The Pope’s Exorcist is the latest in a long line of films pitting priests against demonic forces, the most famous of which being The Exorcist (1973). Amorth was a fan of the film: When he met with its director, William Friedkin, decades later, he explained that he was not afraid of the devil, and that, in fact, the devil feared him.
“Do you know why the Devil is afraid of me? Because I’m uglier than he is,” Amorth told Friedkin in a 2016 Vanity Fair interview.
While he was known to have a surprising sense of humor, considering his line of work, Amorth believed that the work he was doing was essential. Throughout his life, he claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcism rituals.
According to Deepa Bharath of the Associated Press (AP), Amorth has said that 98 percent of those who seek him out need a psychiatrist, not an exorcist. His focus, however, is on the 2 percent.
While some in the Catholic community are critical of The Pope’s Exorcist, one of the film’s executive producers, Edward Siebert, who is also a Jesuit priest, has maintained that his goal is to cast men like Amorth in a positive light. “It’s good to see a priest talking about prayer, forgiveness, God’s love and, on top of all that, vanquishing demons,” Siebert tells the AP. “It feels good to finally see a priest as a hero.”