Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Vatican's Exorcists by Tracy Wilkinson

The Vatican's Exorcists by Tracy Wilkinson

The book provides an all-too-objective look at the practice.
By Rod Dreher, Special to The Times

I once asked a busy exorcist I knew — an elderly Roman Catholic priest, now deceased, whose work mostly consisted of spiritually cleansing haunted houses — how he convinced homeowners that their houses were indeed possessed.

"By the time they come to me," he said, "they don't need to be convinced of anything."

Having seen this priest at work, including in my parents' house after inexplicable events followed the death of a family member, I was convinced by the things I saw, as well as by faith, that the world of the demonic is real. Numerous believers and missionaries, especially, these days, in many Third World countries, testify to this fact from their own experience. Mostly, though, the exorcism phenomenon calls to mind the quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas: "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary; to one without faith, no explanation is possible."

Tracy Wilkinson, the Rome bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, tries to straddle that divide in "The Vatican's Exorcists", her nonfiction account of the priests in and around Rome who continue this archaic and controversial ministry in the 21st century. More and more exorcisms and "deliverances," a lesser form of the rite, are occurring in the West today. If only as a journalistic matter, attention must be paid.

Wilkinson's short book is a useful, if workmanlike, introduction to the phenomenon, though one that is likely to frustrate believers and skeptics alike. Her stance is that of the neutral journalist, one who doesn't impose a point of view — unlike, say, sociologist Michael Cuneo, author of the critical 2001 book "American Exorcism", or any of the mesmerizingly lurid published accounts by chief Rome exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth. While Wilkinson's approach is understandable, I found myself wanting the fast-paced narrative to linger, ponder and delve more deeply into the mysteries, natural and supernatural, it touches.

As the acknowledged leader of the exorcism resurgence in Italy, Amorth is a main focus of "The Vatican's Exorcists". His bestselling books, filled with eye-popping tales of encounters with the devil and his gruesome works do not leave the reader with the possibility of indifference. If Amorth is telling the truth, then the world is a terrifyingly different place than most of us think. And if he is pulling our collective leg, then he is the worst sort of charlatan and should be pitilessly exposed. Who do you say he is? Is exorcism real or not? Whatever you think, reading Wilkinson's frustratingly even-handed — or, less charitably, equivocating — book is probably not going to change it. But what's wrong with allowing the various sides in the controversy to make their cases and leave it to the reader to decide which is more credible? In principle, nothing — but "The Vatican's Exorcists" is so terse that the narrative leaves the reader wanting more investigation and more interpretation for the sake of making this determination. For example, when the husband of an exorcee talks about his demon-haunted wife vomiting needles and says, "You can't believe this stuff until you see it," you think: Really? Where is the physical evidence? What might this mean theologically? But Wilkinson lets it stand.

You step out of the book feeling as if you've read a newspaper series in which the reporter has dutifully and professionally touched the bases, but only that. The profound questions the book's subject matter raises about the nature of evil and the mysteries of mind and spirit, as well as the more mundane but still intriguing world of ecclesial politics, are left tantalizingly under-explored.

Maybe it's because I've been in similar situations as a journalist, but I kept wanting Wilkinson to drop the disinterested observer mask and tell us what she thought of the strange things she was seeing and hearing, in person (Wilkinson is present at an exorcism) and from the priests, sufferers and others to whom she speaks. It would have been interesting to have learned how she personally came to terms with what she was learning.

Despite its shortcomings, "The Vatican's Exorcists" is a useful, readable and serious-minded overview of a complex and controversial subject. One appreciates the attention that a journalist of Wilkinson's stature devotes to an ancient phenomenon that is far more important to the lives and experiences of ordinary Christians worldwide than the scoffers in newsrooms, on faculties and even chanceries care to recognize.

She could have turned away from this story either in fear or in mockery — I have seen journalists do both — but did not. Good for her for taking exorcism seriously. Too bad she didn't take it further.

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Rod Dreher is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News and writes the Crunchy Con blog at Beliefnet.com.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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