The sacramental practice in the Catholic Church of expelling demons from the body of a person who is possessed is termed exorcism. While some may think of the 1973 critically acclaimed film The Exorcist when they hear about exorcisms, the practice is, in fact, a well-defined and procedural process through which clergy members must take specific steps to successfully perform the ritual.
However, the Church regards genuine demonic possession as an extremely rare phenomenon and requires extensive testing to rule out the possibility of mental or physical illness.
Most don’t know that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI performed exorcisms inside the Vatican.
“When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism” – Catechism of the Catholic Church
According to the late Father Gabriele Amorth, who was the exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Pope Saint John Paul II performed his first exorcism as Pope in the Vatican on March 27, 1982. Bishop Ottorino Alberti of the town of Spoleto, Italy brought a young woman by the name of Francesca Fabrizi to the pope asking for his aid. Immediately after he met the young woman, she starting writhing uncontrollably on the ground, sobbing, despite John Paul II’s interventions. She only calmed when he said “Tomorrow I will say mass for you.”
A few years later after the successful exorcism, a happy and peaceful Francesca Fabrizi visited with her husband and children to meet once again with the pope. In the private memoirs of Jacques-Paul Martin, the Prefect of the Papal Household during John Paul II’s papacy, he wrote that the pope said that “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It was a biblical scene.”
Pope John Paul II performed another exorcism in Saint Peter’s Square during a weekly audience in 2000. A woman by the name of Sabrina was brought to the Vatican, and as soon as she entered the square she immediately began to yell and tried to lunge at the pope, requiring ten people to hold her down. She started drooling and yelling blasphemies. After finishing his weekly address, John Paul II asked to meet with Sabrina. According to Father Amorth, as soon as she got close to the pope her eyes glazed over and her head was thrown back and she yelled “No, leave me alone!” John Paul II performed an exorcism on the spot, blessing her several times. The initial attempt, however, failed to completely exorcise her and Father Amorth was required to perform several more exorcisms with Sabrina to completely rid her of demons.
While Father Amorth considered Pope John Paul II to be one of the most powerful exorcists in his time, he considered Pope Benedict XVI to be even more feared by the Devil.
In May of 2009, Father Amorth brought two men to Saint Peter’s Square during one of Benedict XVI’s weekly audiences. The two men, Giovanni and Marco, began to tremble and chatter their teeth as the pope approached them. When he exited the popemobile, both men flung themselves to the ground and began to bang their heads on the ground and howl. From a distance, Benedict XVI raised his arm and blessed the two men. Father Amorth says the two were thrown ten feet backwards and began to sob from being rid of their demons.
Today, Pope Francis has emphasized the presence of the Devil in our world and the need to stay vigilant and not stray or be led into temptation. In March, he urged confessors to be open to referring penitents to exorcists, while saying discernment is needed to differentiate between true spiritual disturbances and possible health disorders.