Reporter’s notebook: The devil and Pope Francis – the pontiff’s effect on exorcism

On Friday, April 11, 2014, Pope Francis acknowledged in a homily during mass that the devil exists.

“The devil also exists in the 21st century, and we need to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him,” he said. “We who want to follow Jesus, and who by our baptism have taken to the Lord’s path, must be well aware of this truth: we too are tempted, we too are objects of the demon’s attacks.”

According to Vatican archives, the pontiff went on to warn, “Watch out.”

For many, spiritual warfare is something that exists only in books and movies. But the popular Pope Francis’ vocalization of the issue may have lent credence to demonic possession.

While working on Satan or psychosis? Mistaking mental illness for demonic possession, I spoke with Texas State University professor Dr. Joseph Laycock, who says the pope’s views on the subject appeal to conservative Catholics.

“I think Pope Francis is especially interested in kind of throwing a bone to the exorcists, because exorcism tends to appeal more to conservative Catholics,” he said. “More progressive Catholics aren’t very interested in demons.

“So, Pope Francis’ social policies are very progressive and conservatives don’t like that. But if he does an exorcism or says something good about exorcism or says something about the devil is real, he kind of gets his conservative card back.”

Laycock continued, “The pope is in this weird balancing act ’cause there’s lots of Catholics and they have very different political views and I think that his kind of endorsement of exorcism [is] an important tool he can use to get his policies across and still maintain that balancing act.”

After a mass in St. Peter’s Square in May 2013, Pope Francis was captured on tape placing his hands on the head of a young man in a wheelchair. (Watch his reaction in the YouTube video above.) Speculation swirled as to whether the pontiff had performed an exorcism.

According to The Associated Press, the Vatican said in a statement that he “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.”

Laycock says this act is open to interpretation.

“I think [Pope Francis] was very clever because he has plausible deniability,” he said. “It could just be kind of a prolonged blessing …

“So, if you’re a Catholic and you think the devil isn’t being taken seriously enough, we need a pope who will fight supernatural evil, and you watch that footage, you think — that’s an exorcism. And if you say, ‘I’m a progressive Catholic, it’s the 21st century, this is silly,’ and you watch the same video, you think, ‘Oh, that’s just a blessing, that’s fine, he’s being compassionate.'”

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Featured image caption: Pope Francis in Varginha, Brazil, July 27, 2013. (Agência Brasil/Tânia Rêgo/ABr/CC-BY-3.0-BR)

Lindsey Leake