When it was first broadcast on the church-run TV2000 channel, a panel of Catholic theologians in the studio stated with absolute certainty that it was an exorcism. The sight of Antonio convulsed in his chair, making guttural sounds, and then slumping down once the Pope removed his hands was evidence enough for them.
Meanwhile the visible change in the Pope’s demeanour, once the priest who was accompanying Antonio, Father Juan Rivas, leaned in and whispered into the papal ear, has been taken as suggesting that Pope Francis was acceding to his request to perform more than a simple blessing — in other words, he was willing, at the drop of a hat, to perform an ad hoc exorcism. That word in the ear was, arguably, the most curious gesture of the whole pored-over episode, for one of the stock images used by Catholicism in the Counter-Reformation was of Martin Luther with the Devil pouring verbal poison into his ear.
The symbolism may even have been intentional, since Father Rivas (a member of the deeply conservative Legionaries of Christ) is evidently well up on the history of demonic possession. He has stated his own belief that Antonio is inhabited by devils, a diagnosis of disability that will have most people throwing up their hands in horror. Surely the Catholic Church has got beyond conflating illness with possession, as when the medieval Inquisition would target epileptics as bearing the mark of Satan.
So, was the good-natured Pope Francis who, we have already learned, is always keen to make himself accessible to those most needy in his flock, simply the victim of a headline-grabbing stunt by an out-of-touch traditionalist priest? The Legionaries of Christ, it should be remembered, are facing an uncertain future after their founder, Father Marcial Maciel, who died in 2008, was revealed as a serial sexual abuser of youngsters, including two of the children he fathered.
For the many Catholics who have greeted the new Pope as the reformer that their Church needs, this is perhaps the most comfortable explanation. And the Vatican has encouraged such an approach by issuing a statement which makes plain that Pope Francis “didn’t intend to perform any exorcism, but as he often does for the sick or suffering, he simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering who was presented to him”. And TV2000 has now also issued an apology for misleading viewers.
But it is not as open and shut as that. First, Father Rivas is far from alone in his belief in real, tangible demonic possession. Every single Catholic diocese around the globe has an official exorcist whose task it is to fight the Devil. In Rome, until recently, the role fell to the redoubtable octogenarian Father Gabriele Amorth, who claimed, when I met him, to have carried out 50,000 exorcisms in the name of the Church. As well as taking Antonio to meet the pontiff, Father Rivas also introduced him to Father Amorth (who is among those siren voices claiming that Pope Francis’s actions in Saint Peter’s Square were consistent with an exorcism).
And this isn’t just a case of a few mavericks. Exorcism is a practice that goes right to the very top. Pope John Paul II — who during his 27-year pontificate produced encyclicals, letters and homilies on almost every subject, but always studiously avoided the topic of the Devil — carried out at least one exorcism: on March 27, 1982 according to the published memoir of Cardinal Jacques Martin, former head of the papal household. And Pope Benedict — though there is no evidence of similar behaviour — did once try to place the blame for the pedophile priest scandal in Catholicism on the intervention of the Devil.
That, of course, gets to the heart of the Devil’s enduring appeal for believers. Rather than taking responsibility for things that go wrong, they can blame it on the Devil as an external force. So, when I once attended a prayer meeting at Holy Trinity, Brompton, west London, alma mater of the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the young participants shared with the group that she had had a terrible week because “the Devil made me spend all my money”.
As this shows, talk of the Devil is not limited to Catholicism. One reason the Vatican worked so hard to picture Luther with the Devil was because the Protestant reformer was an avid believer in Satan, to the point of being convinced that his tortured bowels were possessed. The Church of England also maintains a network of diocesan exorcists — though it prefers to label its ministry to those suffering from “demonic interference” as deliverance. And on the more Evangelical and Pentecostal fringes of Christianity (and the fact that the Pope’s alleged exorcism took place on Pentecost Sunday is another of the curious aspects of this saga), a literal belief in Satan is the norm.
Which, in one sense, is hardly surprising since the New Testament is full of the Devil. Trying to define as merely symbolic his role in tempting Jesus during his 40 days and nights in the wilderness cuts to the core of the Christian message. “The denial of the existence of the Devil implies the non-existence of angels,” the late Alice Thomas Ellis, novelist and traditionalist Catholic, once noted, “and, if you go far enough, of God himself.”
In mainstream Islam, by contrast, the problem is the other way round. The Qur’an makes only passing references to two Devil-like figures — Iblis and Shaytan — but both are no more than a minor irritant. And yet the practice of exorcising jinni — or evil daemons — is practised by some Muslims. Perhaps only Judaism has exorcised itself completely of the tendency to give Yahweh an evil rival. Its emphasis is not on a personification of evil — which lies outside — but rather on the yester hara-kiri, the evil inclination within each and every one.
The idea, then, that the Devil can now safely be dismissed as a relic of a medieval past is only half of the story.
When Pope Francis was welcomed by liberal Catholics as a new broom set to put a fresh emphasis to the witness of their Church, I doubt many had in mind that he would reopen the awkward question of the Devil. But even if the official denial about what happened on Sunday is accepted, the new pontiff has form.
In his very first homily as Pope on March 14, he warned the assembled cardinals that “he who doesn’t pray to the Lord prays to the Devil”. Since when he has made repeated references to Old Nick, most recently in a May 4 homily, in his morning Mass in the chapel of the hostel where he lives in the Vatican, when he spoke of the need for dialogue — except with Satan. “With the prince of this world you can’t have dialogue: Let this be clear!”
Mere symbolism and churchy language? Perhaps, but it is equally possible that the Devil is about to emerge from the shadows thanks to a Pope whose Latin American background maybe inclines him to speak more directly of such matters than his European predecessors.
One of the problems with being precise about what happened on Sunday in Saint Peter’s Square is that it is so hard to pin down precisely what an exorcism is. There is, of course, an ancient and elaborate ritual — last given a major overhaul by Catholicism in 1614 and still referred to in numerous ghoulish Hollywood films — which sets out the prayers that a priest must say when exorcising an individual.
But the basic gesture of rejecting the Devil — the point of exorcism — is there in an array of everyday practices common to many branches of Christianity, from the words used in baptism (“do you renounce Satan and all his ways and all his empty promises?”), through to the simplest gesture of making the sign of the cross, traditionally the best protection against the Devil. Remove them all and there wouldn’t be much left.