In Italy, it would seem that Lucifer is not only alive and kicking, but his influence is spreading. So much so, that the demand for exorcists has led to the Vatican training a whole new posse of priests to deal with the devil. Dateline's Nick Lazaredes was given rare access to film the Catholic Church's rite of exorcism. It's a confronting report. And a warning - his story contains some strong language.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
Since its inception, Italy's Catholic Church has waged a spiritual war against the devil, and it's far from over.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I command you Satan, leave this woman immediately.
It might look like a throwback to the Middle Ages, but the exorcist priests on the front line of this battle for souls insist it's chillingly real.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): Naturally the exorcist is more exposed. Obviously the closer you are to the front line, the more vulnerable you are to the enemy's fire.
I exorcise you, evil spirit;.
WOMAN (Translation): Damn you! Go away!
Centuries old, the sacred rites delivered by Roman Catholic exorcists are claimed to be the only effective solution to demonic possession.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): It's a direct order to leave that the exorcist gives the Devil, relentlessly. And it's a prayer that brings the Devil to his knees because it humiliates him by quoting the Bible.
Italy is in the midst of an exorcism revival. In just 20 years, the number of Catholic priests authorised to perform the ritual of exorcism has grown tenfold. As the fascination with exorcism grows, cases of reported demonic possession are also growing.
FR GABRIELLE AMORTH (Translation): There are many more cases than in the past and I can tell you why, because when faith diminishes, superstition grows.
Father Gabrielle Amorth was once the Vatican's chief exorcist, and at 88, he remains active in the Catholic Church's metaphysical war against hell.
FR GABRIELLE AMORTH (Translation): He's cunning, he's a spirit. He never shows himself, he never announces himself. "œOut of his hatred towards God, the Devil tempts man to sin." He wants to snatch souls from God and take them to hell.
For most of Italy's Roman Catholics, the devil is a real and menacing presence. With growing numbers of Italians claiming to be possessed, a new generation of young exorcists has been dispatched by the Church to cleanse and save their souls.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): I started, when I was still in the seminary, to take part in exorcisms performed by my spiritual guide.
Father Massimiliano Pusceddu is the parish priest of Vallermosa on the island of Sardinia, and one of the Vatican's recent exorcist graduates.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): I'm not an expert because exorcism is a limitless field, you never stop learning. I'm at zero level, I learn something every time.
As a former boxing champion, Father Pusceddu understands the importance of training and discipline in preparation for a fight - whether it be a boxing match or Satan.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): Because we are dealing with the prince of darkness, in order to fight him, we have to be in the state of grace as much as possible. So we pray, we don't go into the lion's den for sport. Nobody does;;yes, sit down here.
It may be thousands of years old, but the practice of exorcising evil spirits remains controversial, and the Catholic Church seldom allows filming of its priests' rituals.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): In the name of the Father;Hail Mary, full of grace;.
But I've been given a rare opportunity to witness an exorcism first-hand.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): I've been treating this girl for a year and a half, so we are already in a good phase. But in the beginning, it was not like this, she was very disturbed - they could not keep her at home.
He tries to find a way to dishearten you, to scare you, especially the first few times.
WOMAN (Translation): Go away, damn you! Curse you! Curse you!
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): We have to specify that it's not the priest who is chasing him away - it is the power of God, the power of the Church. That is what is special about it.
Abiuro ergo te, serpent;.
WOMAN (Translation): Get lost! Stop it! Let me go. Damned mongrel dog! Stop it! Get lost! Enough!
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): It is pretty exhausting. It doesn't frighten me anymore because I have seen so many cases, ones even more difficult than this. But the devil says a lot of things - it's definitely a debilitating ritual.
Speak, in the name of Jesus. The Lord commands you!
WOMAN (Translation): No!
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): What is your name? Who are you? Who are you?
WOMAN (Translation): Enough!
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): The Lord commands you!
WOMAN (Translation): Leave me alone, damn you!
According to Father Pusceddu, many cases like this girl's exist in Italy - a phenomenon he blames on dark forces preying on the young.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): In Sardinia there are a few satanic sects, in the ritual of the black mass they have orgies, they often use hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol and there is a complete loss of inhibitions.
But for some Italians - it's all hocus-pocus, and the devil nothing more than a spooky legend cooked up by the Church.
MARCO DIMITRI, ACTIVIST (Translation): The devil is an invention of the Church - he has neither historical nor biblical roots, because Satan is a better marketing tool than Christ himself. If you take Satan away from the Church, the Church collapses. Christ alone is not enough - it needs a negative character who scares people. So the Church becomes the saviour and that is where the myth of the exorcism begins.
As a political activist fighting for the separation of powers between Church and State, Marco Dimitri is an outspoken critic of the Vatican's influence over Italian society.
MARCO DIMITRI (Translation): My battle is against Catholic oppression not against Catholicism, which is free to exist but against the oppression and ;.. and against the abuse of Catholicism, which is different.
In Dimitri's view, exorcists are fraudsters whose rituals may, in fact, be harmful.
MARCO DIMITRI (Translation): If a consenting adult over 18 believes they are possessed by Donald Duck or Satan or whatever they think is possessing them, that's fine - they are free to do it. But the problem is that exorcisms, in most cases, are performed on people who are not of sound mind, on minors, on people who need psychological help, and that is why it is a criminal act.
Impostors or not, the demand for exorcists shows no sign of slowing. And now, a new front has opened up in the battle to banish demons to hell. Every Sunday, on a hill in central Italy, mass exorcisms are performed by a self-styled Catholic mystic called Clara Romano. Most of the congregation are Roman Catholic, but the exorcisms are open to anyone. Offered for free, hundreds have drawn here from all over Italy to take part in an astonishing spectacle.
CLARA ROMANO (Translation): Our Father;..
CROWD (Translation): Our Father who art in heaven;;
CLARA ROMANO (Translation): In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, evil spirit, leave this body! In the name of God;. The chair! In the name of God;. The chair! In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, leave this body! I command you, evil spirit, free this body! In the name of God, I command you, evil spirit. Leave this body, in the name of God! I command you.
I've started this prayer group because I've seen that the moral values of life and family are disintegrating.
God is stronger than you.
MAN (Translation): Fuck off, you and your poofter God.
CLARA ROMANO (Translation): The more the person gets angry when challenged by the power of the exorcist, the more the energy is discharged and weakens.
In the name of God, evil spirit, I command you, leave this body. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to leave this body! Do you hear me, evil spirit?
Every week, Clara is verbally abused, kicked and spat on as she attempts to exorcise the demons from her apparently possessed visitors.
CLARA ROMANO (Translation): It's possibly because I am a representative of Christ, the devil is afraid and starts to reveal himself. He takes over a person and the presence of the devil becomes dominant. In that moment, my spirituality, my spiritual strength fights the devil.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): I swear I'll kill the lot of you. I'll get a gun and shoot you in the mouth.
CLARA ROMANO (Translation): Et saeculum per ignem. Amen.
Demons, you had better be quiet.
It's not the person who screams and acts like that, it's the devil who makes them do it.
The mass exorcism lasts almost four hours. But before it ends, it becomes apparent my presence is wearing thin with the so-called possessed.
MAN: She's just saying that, um, you should shut up, because you're not speaking Italian, so you should just fuck off.
As others slowly come out of their possessed state, blessings are given to all who've attended. But there's not a priest to be found.
MAN 2 (Translation): We asked the bishop to send a priest to help us because there are many Catholics here, but so far it hasn't happened and we can't force them to come.
FR GABRIELLE AMORTH (Translation): I think that priests don't talk enough about the Devil. The Devil exists and people must be made aware of it, because if they are not warned, they fall into the Devil's traps.
Father Amorth doesn't deny that evil is alive and well inside the Catholic Church.
FR GABRIELLE AMORTH (Translation): Think of the paedophilia scandal, a huge scandal - huge scandal. That was undoubtedly the work of Satan. His presence was very strong there.
And he says the devil is also at work in the Vatican.
FR GABRIELLE AMORTH (Translation): Of course he can get into the Vatican! because the Devil tempts especially those in power. I know some people in the Vatican who are driven only by their ambition to get to the top - that's a temptation of the Devil.
WOMAN (Translation): Get lost! Enough! Shut up, stop talking!
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): This girl was possessed by several demons, the last one left is Satan, in every case. Satan sends the others ahead, then, as they are chased away he is the only one left, being the most stubborn.
The holy oils are an essential part of the ritual, and as Father Pusceddu applies them to the young woman, she begins to vomit.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): The retching that you have seen is caused by the evil spell that she has ingested, so she tries, during the prayer; the prayer works to expel the spell, so they may bring up saliva or sometimes an object that has materialised;. It could be anything.
I see that I have weakened the devil and I couldn't push her any further or she'd have had to be carried out on a stretcher.
Okay, sit down. How do you feel? Better?
It all ends just like a meeting with a psychologist or a doctor - with the next appointment and another date with the devil.
FR MASSIMILIANO PUSCEDDU (Translation): I'll see you, not this Saturday but the next, at 10.30 in the morning, okay?
MARK DAVIS: It doesn't look too voluntary, but Nick tells us that all of the possessed willingly engaged in their exorcism ordeal.
Original Music Composed by
18th September 2012