An exaggerated claim that transformed a simple prayer by the new pope into an “exorcism” has sparked controversy—provoking denials from the Vatican and a retraction from at least one church media outlet.
At issue is an allegedly possessed “boy” (as he is described in some reports)—actually a 43-year-old wheelchair-bound husband and father, according to the Associated Press. He was brought from Mexico by a priest to attend Pope Francis’ Sunday Mass (May 19, 2013) in St. Peter’s Square. Following the Mass, the pope blessed several of the ailing faithful, as is his custom. He put his hands on the Mexican man’s head and recited a brief prayer, whereupon the latter—shown in a photo with his mouth wide open—reportedly “heaved deeply a half-dozen times, shook, then slumped in his wheelchair.” (See https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pope-devil-francis-exorcist-19223208; accessed May 22, 2013.)
Amid claims that he had performed an “exorcism” that actually helped “liberate” the man from no fewer than four “demons,” Francis insisted no such thing happened. A statement issued by the Vatican the following Tuesday said the pope “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.” Subsequently, the director of TV2000 (the Italian bishop’s conference television station)—which had hyped the “exorcism”—issued an on-air retraction and apologized for attributing to Francis “a gesture that he didn’t intend to perform.”
At the root of the exaggerations may have been anti-abortion zealotry. A prominent exorcist for the diocese of Rome, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, first said he also performed an extended exorcism on the “possessed” man on Tuesday morning (two days later) and discovered he had four separate demons—indicating the pope’s actions had not in fact “liberated” the man at all. Then Amorth added (in the words of AP reporter Nicole Winfield) that “The case was related to the legalization of abortion in Mexico City.”
I suspect Amorth got this notion from the Mexican priest, Rev. Juan Rivas, who brought the “possessed” man to the Sunday Mass. Rivas subsequently wrote on his Facebook page that the man was possessed because Mexico had legalized abortion. He added that “In order to stop violence in Mexico, we first have to publicly admit our sin; we and Mexico’s bishops need to put our voices together and speak out against abortion and hold a religious celebration to make amends for the serious offence committed against Our Lady of Guadalupe [as Mary is often represented in Mexico]. We must not stop until this law which favors violence against the weak and defenseless is overturned.” (See Vatican Insider, May 21, 2013.)
We should look for more details about this aspect of the case, which could suggest that there was an attempt to take advantage of an unsuspecting pope. Catholic anti-abortion crusaders often hijack some “miracle” claim for political use. For example, the traveling Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima is accompanied by a message of world peace but when the glass-eyed effigy occasionally “weeps” some link the phenomenon to the legalization of abortion. (See my article forthcoming in Skeptical Briefs, Summer 2013.) When the Virgin Mary “appears” to purported visionaries (like Nancy Fowler whom I heard at Conyers, Georgia, in 1994), the supposedly channeled message is frequently an anti-abortion rant. And the Image of Guadalupe (a 16th-century picture of Mary that supposedly appeared miraculously but was in fact painted) is often seen reproduced as a banner at anti-abortion rallies.
Meanwhile, one hopes that the man (reportedly named Angelo) gets whatever psychological help he may need, and that those who still, in the 21st century, believe in devils and demons will do likewise. (For more on demon possession and exorcism, see my The Science of Miracles, Prometheus Books, 2013.)