The young man opened his mouth as the Pope laid his hands on his head, then convulsed and slumped in his wheelchair
Vatican denies Pope Francis performed 'exorcism'
The Vatican has denied claims that Pope Francis performed an exorcism, after TV images showed a man apparently reacting to him putting his hands on his head.
The station quoted exorcists as saying there was "no doubt" the Pope had either performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from the devil.
Its director later apologised for "having altered the truth".
The Pope's spokesman said he "did not intend to perform any exorcism".
"Rather as he frequently does with the sick or suffering who come his way, he simply intended to pray for a suffering person," said Federico Lombardi in a statement.
The footage shows a young man, who is in a wheelchair, opening his mouth and either screaming or breathing deeply as the Pope puts his hands on his head and prays for him during the Mass in St Peter's Square.
The man then convulses and slumps in his chair.
On Tuesday, the director of the TV station which broadcast the pictures, TV 2000, apologised for the report, saying: "I don't want to attribute to him a gesture that he didn't intend to perform."
"I apologise for having altered the truth of the facts and for the people who are involved, in particular I apologise to the Holy Father," said Dino Boffo.
Religious figures in Rome had insisted the act had been an exorcism.
They included the Vatican's former chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, who was quoted by Italian media as saying the act "was an exorcism alright" and that he had since performed his own exorcism on the young man, who he said was called Angelo.
Exorcism is the ancient practice of driving out demons or evil spirits from a person or place they are thought to possess. It is practised by some Roman Catholics but treated with deep scepticism by others.
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The case concerns a 43-year-old husband and father who traveled to Rome from Mexico to attend Francis' Mass on Sunday in St. Peter's Square. At the end of the Mass, Francis blessed several wheelchair-bound faithful as he always does, including a man possessed by the devil, according to the priest who brought him, the Rev. Juan Rivas.
Francis laid his hands on the man's head and recited a prayer. The man heaved deeply a half-dozen times, shook, then slumped in his wheelchair.
The images, broadcast worldwide, prompted the television station of the Italian bishops' conference to declare that according to several exorcists, there was "no doubt" that Francis either performed an exorcism or a simpler prayer to free the man from the devil.
The Vatican was more cautious. In a statement Tuesday, it said Francis "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."
Amorth told RAI state radio that even a short prayer, without the full rite of exorcism being performed, is in itself a type of exorcism.
"That was a true exorcism," he said of Francis' prayer. "Exorcisms aren't just done according to the rules of the ritual."
Rivas took the Vatican line, saying it was no exorcism but that Francis merely said a prayer to free the man from the devil.
"Since no one heard what he said, including me who was right there, you can say he did a prayer for liberation but nothing more," Rivas wrote on his Facebook page, which was confirmed by his religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.
Fueling the speculation that Francis did indeed perform an exorcism is his frequent reference to Satan in his homilies — as well as an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.
Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic "The Exorcist"?
In his very first homily as pope on March 14, Francis warned cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel the day after he was elected that "he who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil."
He has since mentioned the devil on a handful of occasions, most recently in a May 4 homily when in his morning Mass in the Vatican hotel chapel he spoke of the need for dialogue — except with Satan.
"With the prince of this world you can't have dialogue: Let this be clear!" he warned.
Experts said Francis' frequent invocation of the devil is a reflection both of his Jesuit spirituality and his Latin American roots, as well as a reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization.
In recent years, Rome's pontifical universities have hosted several courses for would-be exorcists on the rite, updated in 1998 and contained in a little red leather-bound booklet. The rite is relatively brief, consisting of blessings with holy water, prayers and an interrogation of the devil in which the exorcist demands to know the devil's name, how many are present and when they will leave the victim.
Only a priest authorized by a bishop can perform an exorcism, and canon law specifies that the exorcist must be "endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life."
While belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching, the Holy See does urge prudence, particularly to ensure that the victim isn't merely psychologically ill.
The Rev. Giulio Maspero, a Rome-based systematic theologian who has witnessed or participated in more than a dozen exorcisms, says he's fairly certain that Francis' prayer on Sunday was either a full-fledged exorcism or a more simple prayer to "liberate" the young man from demonic possession.
He noted that the placement of the pope's hands on the man's head was the "typical position" for an exorcist to use.
"When you witness something like that — for me it was shocking — I could feel the power of prayer," he said in a phone interview, speaking of his own previous experiences.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, sought to temper speculation that what occurred was a full-fledged exorcism. While he didn't deny it outright — he said Francis hadn't "intended" to perform one — he stressed that the intention of the person praying is quite important.
Late Tuesday, the director of TV2000, the television of the Italian bishops' conference, went on the air to apologize for the earlier report.
"I don't want to attribute to him a gesture that he didn't intend to perform," said the director, Dino Boffo.
That said, Francis' actions and attitude toward the devil are not new: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio frequently spoke about the devil in our midst.
In the book "Heaven and Earth," Bergoglio devoted the second chapter to "The Devil" and said in no uncertain terms that he believes in the devil and that Satan's fruits are "destruction, division, hatred and calumny."
"Perhaps its greatest success in these times has been to make us think that it doesn't exist, that everything can be traced to a purely human plan," he wrote.
Italian newspapers noted that the late Pope John Paul II performed an exorcism in 1982 — near the same spot where Francis prayed over the young disabled man Sunday.