Stories were flying all over the Internet last week alleging that Pope Francis may have performed an exorcism on a wheelchair-bound man — said to be a 43-year-old Mexican pilgrim called Angelo — in St. Peter’s Square, following the Mass for Pentecost.
Even better, the moment was caught on video: after a few words from a priest accompanying the young man, the pontiff placed his hands prayerfully upon Angelo’s head, a gesture commentators have declared “a real act of exorcism.” Some have said the Pope wore a grim expression as he approached the task, though the low-quality video makes it difficult to be sure. Under the Pope’s prayerful touch, Angelo convulses and slumps in his chair. The Pope moves on to greet the next child, but not before Angelo’s priest hands over a file folder, taken by a member of the Pope’s suit-wearing security team.
(They look suspiciously like the Men in Black. What are we not being told? Is the Pope, in fact, an extraterrestrial?)
It makes sense that the global media would run with the exorcism story rather than the alien-conspiracy angle. After all, the pontiff has developed a bit of a reputation for emphasizing the demonic in his remarks; clearly the devil is a central adversary in his cosmology. It seems like an exorcism would follow logically.
The Vatican is remaining cagey on the subject, insisting that Pope Francis “simply intended to pray for a person who was presented to him.” But Father Gabriele Amorth, famous professional exorcist and media darling, countered that it was indeed a deliberate act of exorcism, and that Angelo was possessed by four demons. (One wonders where Amorth gets his information.) In Amorth’s own words,
It was a real exorcism. If the Vatican has denied this, it shows that they understand nothing… We live in an age in which God has been forgotten. And wherever God is not present, the Devil reigns. Those who don’t believe should read the Gospels. Jesus continually performed exorcisms. Today, unfortunately, bishops appoint too few exorcists. We need many more.
Of course, it’s not hard to see that Amorth has a stake in the exorcism story. He didn’t become the media’s favorite Vatican exorcist by insisting that the procedure is rare, undramatic, and unnecessary.
Likewise, a papal blessing doesn’t make headlines or generate web hits. A papal exorcism, on the other hand… now that could be newsworthy. Especially if the Vatican is trying to cover it up.
In fact, the formal Catholic Rite of Exorcism involves an extremely long session of prayer over the possessed individual and may require more than one session to chase the demon(s) away. It’s possible that the Pope performed a “simple exorcism,” a short prayer or blessing to drive away evil, but that’s virtually indistinguishable from the kind of everyday blessing the pontiff would offer the average pilgrim.
The pontiff’s alleged grim expression and Angelo’s slumping and convulsing could easily be explained by whatever serious medical condition left Angelo confined to a wheelchair. It’s not hard to imagine that the priest was confiding the nature of Angelo’s condition to Pope Francis, which might easily cause the Pope to adopt a somber expression as he delivered his blessing. The file folder is a bit unusual, but can certainly be explained without resorting to demonology. (Though, for curiosity’s sake, I still wouldn’t turn down five minutes alone with its contents.)
Of course, whether it was intended as an exorcism or a mere blessing is irrelevant to those who believe in neither God nor demons. We already know that Francis accepts the literal truth of the devil and treats spiritual warfare as a reality in the world. The specifics of this incident can’t tell us anything new… but it may perhaps serve as a reminder that, in a twenty-four-hour-news-media universe, credulity has the advantage of making for more exciting stories.