VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis' obsession with the devil took on remarkable new twists yesterday, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped "liberate" a Mexican man possessed by four different demons despite the Vatican's insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.
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 yesterday, 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." The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, a leading exorcist for the diocese of Rome, said he performed a lengthy exorcism of his own on the man yesterday and ascertained he was possessed by four separate demons. The case was related to the legalization of abortion in Mexico City, he said.
"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, including in the 1973 cult classic "The Exorcist."
In his 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."