Nov. 14, 2010 -- More than 100 Catholic bishops and priests gathered in Baltimore this weekend for a two-day conference on exorcism, organized by a bishop who said he wants U.S. dioceses to be prepared.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., the chairman of the bishops' Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, told ABC News' Dan Harris today that although the need for exorcisms is rare, it does arise.
"The real hope here and the purpose is to provide some training so that really every diocese could have its own resources to handle such inquires," he said.
The purpose of the conference was to educate the clergy members of the scriptural basis for the need for exorcism, and to teach them about how the ritual should be performed.
The many popular movies about exorcism -- from "The Exorcist", released in 1973, to "The Last Exorcism," released last year -- may have created some misconceptions about the ritual.
"Possession is really a very rare thing," he said. "It's not contagious. It's not like people have to worry like somehow I'm going to get possessed by a devil."
He said there are many signs of possession, including a person speaking a language they have never studied, showing signs of great strength or having knowledge that it would seem no person could have.
"The person has some knowledge of hidden things that they're telling you things about yourself or about the future that nobody else could possibly know," he said.
Among other signs, he said, is a person having an aversion to things that are holy.
"So saying prayers over them or sprinkling them with holy water and getting a very violent reaction," Paprocki said.
For thousands of years, religious leaders from various denominations have used exorcism rituals to drive out the devil from those who are possessed.
In the Bible, there are references to Jesus himself casting demons out of people.
"We don't think that's poetic metaphor," Paprocki said in an interview with the Catholic News Service.
Steep Decline in U.S. Exorcisms
In America, exorcisms have dropped off dramatically, but overseas, they are carried out much more frequently, and sometimes by people who are frauds or worse.
Harris traveled to the Congo last year with a "Nightline" crew where he saw Christian pastors performing cruel, abusive exorcisms on young children who were accused of being witches.
While many people in America, including many within the Catholic church, are skeptical about exorcism -- perhaps at least in part because of the sensational Hollywood portrayals -- it is widely accepted in Europe and other parts of the world.
Pope John Paul II himself, according to his longtime private secretary Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, performed an exorcism on a woman who was brought into the Vatican writhing and screaming in what Dziwisz said was a case of possession by the devil.
In a March interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the Rev. Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican's chief exorcist, strongly defended his work and that of the Association of Exorcists.
"The devil is not everywhere," he said. "But when he is present, it is painful."
He says he has treated thousands of cases of demonic possession.
"The devil is pure spirit, invincible," Amorth said. "He is shown with the painful blasphemies coming from the person which he possesses. He can stay hidden. He can speak different languages. He can transform himself."
It can take six or seven of Amorth's assistants to hold down someone possessed. Often, he said, they choke up nails or shards of glass.
"None of this scares me," he says, touching a small pouch where he holds the vomited artifacts. "I know that God is using me for this work."
In 1999, the Vatican revised its guidelines on the Rite of Exorcism, which explains exactly how Catholic priests should perform the ritual. But it also cautioned that "all must be done to avoid the perception that exorcism is magic or superstition."
No Surge in Possessions
Paprocki told Catholic News Service that this weekend's conference was needed because he knows of just five or six exorcists in the United States and they are overwhelmed with requests to perform the rite.
"Actually, each diocese should have its own resource [person]," he said.
But he told Harris that the training session wasn't called because of a surge in people being possessed.
"Contrary to some reports, this is not an emergency conference," he said. "There's no upsurge in people being possessed by devils."