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Vatican takes a modern approach to exorcism and the devil, author says

John Thavis covered the Vatican for 30 years.
Provided by the author

When veteran Vatican journalist John Thavis interviewed exorcists for his new book, many said right off that exorcism was “nothing at all like the movie.”

These American and Italian priests were referring to the 1973 movie “The Exorcist” made from William Peter Blatty’s novel, which was based on a St. Louis event.

In the late 1940s, Saint Louis University Jesuits professors Father William S. Bowdern and his assistant Father Walter Halloran performed the Catholic rite of exorcism on a young boy (a girl in the movie) at SLU’s DuBourg Hall and Alexian Brothers Hospital.

“When I talked to exorcists they’d say it is not like the movie, then, after about 10 minutes of saying most were not theatrical, they started to describe their most memorable exorcisms,” Thavis said in an interview (Bowdern and Halloran died years before research began on this book). “The images could have come right out of the movie: walking on walls, flipping backward, mattresses shaking, people being thrown against the wall … lettering appearing on chests and backs, screeching in Aramaic, a language they could not have known.”

Monday evening Thavis will speak about his new book “Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles in the Modern Age” at 7 p.m. at Left Bank Books, 339 North Euclid Ave. His first book was a New York Times best seller “The Vatican Diaries.”

When he was filing stories daily as a journalist he never had time to look into these topics in depth.

“No one had done a serious take on how the Vatican looks at all these supernatural things in modern times,” he said. “What you read about them normally are kind of flippant articles. I wanted to write something serious but I needed the cooperation of Vatican officials. I knew that these are subjects that they don’t like to talk about.”

Officials opened their doors to Thavis, who has been covering the Vatican full time since 1982. Thavis is “one of the world’s leading Vaticanologists,” said Father James Martin, a Jesuit bestselling author.

In 1999, the Vatican modernized the exorcism rite calling for prayers to be in the language of the “possessed” rather than Latin. New words make the effort more like a negotiation with the devil rather and less dramatic than screaming demands. New rules require the priests to work with the medical scientific community, with psychiatrists and psychologists, “all along the way.”

Thavis will speak about his book Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles in the Modern Age at 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at Left Bank Books, 339 North Euclid Ave. in the Central West End.

The U.S. exorcists Thavis interviewed are “younger and well-educated” and welcome using medical experts. That also is part of the mandate of the recently organized International Association of Exorcists. Many told Thavis “that mental illness, not just spiritual distress, is very common in these cases.” Priests told him that many of the “possessed” genuinely want to break free from what they see as the “devil’s clutches.” Older Italian exorcists Thavis interviewed brush past the Vatican’s 1999 medical partnership requirement and still pray in Latin.

Thavis said he has no evidence nor even rumors that Pope Francis, former Jesuit leader for Argentina, ever performed an exorcism in Argentina. In the spring of 2013, news stories in Mexico, Italy and the United States by reporters who knew little about the rite claimee the pope had exorcised a devil from a Mexican man. Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi released a Vatican bulletin saying that Pope Francis had had no intention of performing the rite of exorcism but simply prayed for the suffering man. Later, the man said he was much better but not completely cured, Thavis said.

An ordinary devil

Pope Francis talks about the devil — not possession by the devil — frequently in his Mass homilies at Santa Marta Chapel, Thavis said.

“The pope talks about the devil as a real person, a real figure. He has described the devil as a con artist, a manipulator.” Thavis said. “For him, talking about the devil is a normal part of being Catholic

“When Francis began talking about the devil in his morning homilies, the Vatican people were taken aback more than anyone,” Thavis said. “Vatican officials have kept the devil in the closet for decades. Vatican theologians are more about engaging the world and worrying less about the devil. The idea that there is a real figure leading you into sin has almost been swept from the Catholic theological landscape.”

Twice during the pope’s six-day U.S. visit in September, Francis publicly mentioned the devil. Once gently to Catholic school children in East Harlem neighborhood of New York and to the U.S. bishops assembled at St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington.

“While many see Francis as progressive on some issues, his view of the devil is traditional,” Thavis said. “He makes the devil more real to more people. What I find interesting about Pope Francis is that he does not talk about the devil possessing people violently or against their will, no smoke and sulfur. He does not suggest that people need exorcism. He finds the devil in ordinary life, in subtle kind of evil forces that tempt people to do little bad things, moral compromises like gossip that, then, become habit.”

Thavis, who has covered popes on visits to every continent except Antarctica, called Francis’ U.S. trip last week “a great success.”

“The country got a good look at this man and realized that he can’t be pigeon-holed politically, “he said.

It does not surprise him that the pope met briefly with Kim Davis, the evangelical Protestant Kentucky county clerk who was jailed rather than allow her name on single-sex marriage certificates. On papal trips, Thavis has seen streams of people coming to the backdoors of their residences.

The stream who met John Paul II in St. Louis on Jan. 26, 1999, for example, included his old chum, the  Cardinals star slugger  Stan Musial, Mark McGwire and civil rights icon Rosa Parks as well as scores of St. Louis civic and religious leaders.

“Francis likes the underdogs, appreciates people who are suffering, has a soft spot for Pentecostals, meets with just about anyone with a good story,” he said.

Thursday the Vatican said the pope did not discuss details of Davis’ case with her.

“He may not have agreed from a Catholic standpoint that her action was a good test of freedom of conscience but he would sympathize with her as a person trying to live by her conscience.” Thavis said.

Some months ago, Francis welcomed a transgender person at the Vatican with a hug. “That does not mean he agreed, but everyone is a child of God,” Thavis said.


In his 10 months of research on supernatural topics, Thavis said the officials he talked with worried about false prophets, often consulted scientists and bowed to scientific findings in seeking the truth. Vatican departments take time, sometimes several lifetimes, to investigate proposed medical miracles required for canonizing a person, relics of saints, the origins of the skeletal image on the Shroud of Turin, end-time predictions at Fatima and other places, and reports by those who claim to have had visions of Mary or Jesus. His research took him from Rome to Kansas, from Bosnia to Indiana.

book cover The Vatican Prophecies
Credit Amazon book cover

Looking into the near future, Thavis says the “toughest thing” on the pope’s desk is a commission report on whether reports of visions at Medjugorje by teenagers in 1981 are creditable or frauds.

Several Bosnian teens claimed that they saw a vision of a black-haired woman in a grey gown on a steep rocky hillside in their home town of Medjugorje , then Yugoslavia, now part of Bosnia.

Authenticated visions like those at Lourdes France; Fatima, Portugal; and Champion, Wis. (in 1859, the only authenticated on U.S. soil) usually only occur a few times over a few months or less. The Vatican’s custom is to wait until the "visions" end and the “visionaries” are inspired to live good lives and do charity as a result before saying they are “worthy of belief.” Three decades later, the now middle-aged Bosnian “visionaries” say they continue to see Mary at least once a year. Millions have climbed the rocky hillside  the visions are said to have appeared. The neighborhood has become a  commercial success. All Medjugorje “visionaries” earn money in the pilgrim lodging business, Thavis said.

The region’s bishops have declined to authenticate the apparitions as true. Pope Benedict XVI set up a high-ranking commission to investigate the alleged visions and their visionaries. It took the commission five years but it gave Pope Francis its report last January.

Pinning down facts about the supernatural is not easy even for a committee of theologians. Martin, the Jesuit author and humorist, called the clarity and depth of  Thavis' new book on such a secretive subject "a small miracle."

In love with Italy

The soft-spoken, unassuming, witty Thavis started on his road to being a Vatican journalist in the summer of 1978. Thavis fell in love — with Italy. As an archaeology graduate student, he jumped at the chance to spend his summer on a dig south of Palermo, Sicily. His group uncovered pottery from the Thapsos culture on the island about 1500 BC.

“I was supposed to go back to school but as much as I loved archaeology, I loved Italy better,” he said. “I decided to stay and find a job.”

To get a work permit he had to find a job that no Italian could do. He applied at the Rome Daily American, an English language daily newspaper.

His timing was perfect.

“The day I arrived the Red Brigades had just kidnapped the former Italian prime minister.” Brigate Rosse was a para-military, Italian revolutionary terrorist group who kidnapped, and six weeks later, murdered Prime Minister Aldo Moro.

The Rome Daily American editors gave Thavis a notebook and sent him out on the street. That fall at the paper he was still working on his Italian fluency when he learned to read Sistine Chapel smoke signals. It was the year of three popes.

Thavis eventually returned to St. Paul, Minn., married and worked on a newspaper, but Rome pulled him back in 1982. For three decades, at least five days a week he wrote about the Roman Catholic Church, retiring as Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service in 2012. He and his wife, Lauren, moved then back to St. Paul.

Drawn back by Benedict

In the winter of 2013 he looked at Pope Benedict’s spring schedule and saw that it was almost bare.

“He had finished all his big projects, three books completed his synod, and most of his last encyclical, kind of cleaned his desk,” Thavis said.

That is very unusual for any pope, and Thavis figured something was up.

He bought a plane ticket and emailed a few colleagues working in Rome, telling them that he was coming for the retirement announcement. They thought he was nuts. No pope had retired for 600 years.

Thavis was aware that, in conversations inside the Vatican, Pope Benedict worried that a pope might become incapacitated.

“He had seen what happened from the inside under John Paul II’s illness. He did not want to duplicate that. He was well aware of the power struggles that start when a pope is not completely well. … Benedict is German, a very rational thinker who had said resignation was possible,” Thavis said. “You can hope for good health but cannot demand it from God.”

On his hunch and his own dollar, Thavis arrived in Rome on Feb. 10. The next day Benedict announced his retirement.

“Even though that was the reason that I went, when it actually happened I was as shocked as anyone,” he said. Thavis became one of the few reporters to cover four conclaves (elections) and four papal installations.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.