"The Pope's Exorcist" starring Russell Crowe portrays real exorcist

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“The Pope’s Exorcist,” starring Russell Crowe, portrays a real-life exorcist: Do demon possessions still happen?

April 13, 2023 -

Actor Russell Crowe arrives for the Australian premiere of the movie "The Mummy" in Sydney, Australia. He plays Father Armoth in The Pope's Exorcist, releasing April 14 2023(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Actor Russell Crowe arrives for the Australian premiere of the movie "The Mummy" in Sydney, Australia. He plays Father Armoth in The Pope's Exorcist, releasing April 14 2023(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Actor Russell Crowe arrives for the Australian premiere of the movie "The Mummy" in Sydney, Australia. He plays Father Armoth in The Pope's Exorcist, releasing April 14 2023(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

In 1973, Warner Bros. distributed The Exorcist, a disturbing, milestone horror movie that would define a film genre. Many people left the theaters deeply mortified, and the Psychology Journal even published a paper outlining a so-called “cinematic neurosis” caused by the movie. Some politicians tried to ban the film.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, The Exorcist would remain the highest-grossing horror film until 2017. People’s fascination with “supernatural horror,” usually involving demons and the devil, has not waned.

On April 14, 2023, The Pope’s Exorcist will come to theaters in the US. While critics rate the movie as average or worse, Russell Crowe’s acting apparently carries a glimmer of redemption for the film. Far from pure fiction, the movie is based on a real person and his writings, Father Gabriele Armoth, the exorcist of the Diocese of Rome.

Surprisingly, Father Armoth said that the original horror film The Exorcist was “substantially exact” to a real representation of being possessed by Satan, and it was even his favorite movie.

Who was Father Gabriele Armoth?

Armoth was born in 1925 to a religious, loving family. From an early age, he wanted to become a priest and enter religious life. He fought in World War II and received a medal for military valor. For a brief time, he was involved in politics, becoming a leader in the Christian Democrat Party.

In 1954, he was ordained in the order of St. Paul and did significant work in writing for the Catholic church. He was enthralled with Mary throughout his career, focusing on “Mariology.” For over twenty years, he took on various roles in communication, organization, and leadership in the Pauline order.

In 1986, he became an exorcist as an assistant to Father Candido Amantini. When he began working, he realized the lack of exorcists in the church and became passionate about raising up more exorcists, forming the International Association of Exorcists, and writing books to inspire priests.

He credits his protection to his devotion to God and Mary. He says in one interview, “Many times after, the Devil said to me: ‘We can do nothing to you; you are too protected!’ And so I am; I am protected under the mantle of Our Lady [Mary]!” He was a key figure in bringing a renewal of Spirit-led gifts to the Catholic church.

Father Armoth was known for his lighthearted humor and humility. Russell Crowe, who will play Father Armoth, said in an interview, “If you’re facing that kind of darkness constantly on behalf of other people, if you’re the man reaching into somebody who’s in trouble trying to bring them to the light, then the purity of your faith and a sense of humor, that’s got to be the best sword and shield that you could have in terms of protecting yourself in that moment.”

Father Armoth claimed to have performed minor and major exorcisms as many as 160,000 times in his ministry (not all different people). He died in 2016 at the age of ninety-one.

Do demon possessions still happen today?

Yes. While not all demonic-seeming acts are supernatural, demons still possess people today. While we might cock an eyebrow at Father Armoth’s claims of 160,000 exorcisms, he claims to have sent most people requesting an exorcism to a psychiatrist or doctor. If they demanded an exorcism anyway, he would say, “You have no devil. If you have a problem, talk to a good vet.”

In fact, standard practices for the Roman Catholic church dictate that a victim’s affliction must be unexplainable by a psychiatrist and medical doctor before a priest can perform an exorcism.

What do demon possessions look like?

Father Armoth claimed that “people possessed by Satan tended to vomit pieces of iron and shards of glass” and has observed “possessed victims levitate,” which both happen seem to happen in The Pope’s Exorcist. There’s no instance of possessed people doing anything like that in Scripture, although demons can apparently give people heightened strength (Acts 19:13–16; ​​Luke 8:26–39).

Father Armoth also claimed that Harry Potter and yoga are demonic. While we should be careful of sorcery and superstition, those claims seem dubious to me (a fan of Harry Potter and an infrequent yoga attender). Of course, these can lead people astray into spiritual darkness, but so can many otherwise positive things in equal measure. Father Armoth also controversially (to put it mildly) claimed that the devil resided in the Vatican.

John Piper is a critic of the Roman Catholic church for adding to Scripture and leading people astray from the simple good news of Jesus’ salvation by grace and faith alone. He could hardly be more different theologically from Father Armoth.

Yet, Piper also relates one profound experience with demon possession and exorcism. When he was a college minister, he went to an apartment late at night to help some people who were concerned for their friend. They said of her, “That’s not our friend. That’s not her voice, that’s not her face, and she’s possessed.”

Piper says that the “steady state ordinary” way of bringing people out of Satan’s clutches is outlined in 2 Timothy 2:24–26: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”

But in the case of this college student, an intense exorcism was required. Piper read his Bible aloud to her for two hours or so, and she would often scream and knock it out of his hands. She threatened them with a small knife but never cut them as her friends bravely kept her from leaving. They sang alleluias together, and she threw herself to the floor, flopping around, screaming for Satan not to leave her. Then she went unconscious.

Eventually, she got up and completely changed. She didn’t remember anything that had happened but seemed entirely lucid. Piper handed her a Bible and told her to read Romans 8. She came to his church after that and eventually became a believer.

She later told Piper about her experiences leading up to her possession, which amounted to horrible, unspeakable, and even criminal sins.

Spiritual warfare doesn’t always happen as possessions

Piper is also right that the devil is active daily in Christians’ lives and that his activity is nearly 100 percent of the time in ordinary things. Spiritual warfare wages around us every day, and not usually in demonic possessions in the West but in the temptation to hold a grudge against our spouse, allowing our eyes to linger lustfully, being swayed by false doctrine, and other such temptations (Ephesians 6:12).

Some frequently talk about casting out “the demon of lust” or other such evil spirits. Although the devil “prowls” and “schemes,” most often it’s our own sinful desires that lead us astray—no possession required (James 1:14). Jesus also healed people with seizures and ailments who were not demon-possessed. Most strange behavior is explainable by medical or psychiatric causes.

While Father Armoth’s life was dedicated to helping people and The Pope’s Exorcist tries to portray his real-life exorcism of a possessed boy, the Vatican condemned the movie—especially for its Da Vinci Codelike subplot where Armoth tries to uncover a conspiracy in the Vatican.

While Christians should be aware of the devil and his work, we shouldn’t become overly fascinated with sensationalized demonic activity. So, although Father Armoth might have supported the movie were he alive, we cannot recommend watching it (it has poor reviews anyway).

God has given Christians the power to defeat Satan and demons by the name of Jesus and his triumph on the cross. God provides this promise: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

Christians will never be possessed because Jesus lives in us and has already defeated Satan.

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