The first college course on exorcism is being offered at a Catholic university in Italy. Already, priests from around the world are flocking to Rome to participate and study psychology, law and a history of satanism.
The course is not quite as dramatic as Hollywood-style exorcism
The university on the outskirts of Rome is about as far from Hogwarts as it gets. Sunshine streams in from a huge skylight above as a janitor pushes a broom across a slick, shiny floor and students mill about with coffee before making their way to class -- in black cassocks and dangling crosses.
Because beneath its modern veneer, the Vatican-backed Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, or UPRA, is grappling with demons. For the first time, this conservative Catholic university is offering Exorcism 101 this year.
"People are experiencing these things more for various reasons, but they are starting more and more to come to the priest and say I need some help," said Father Christopher Barrack, a priest from Lincoln, Neb., who was sent to Rome by his bishop specifically to take the 8-week exorcism course.
Forget rosaries and bibles
In one room, Father Piedro Barahan is giving a lecture to a class of 80 students -- almost all men. Forget Bibles and rosaries. With the aid of his laptop computer and a microphone, Barahan gives a power-point presentation on the theology of demons. Another 50 or so students follow the lecture through videoconference links with three other Italian cities.
Under the influence?
"Most of these people here are priests and most of them in their pastoral work deal with people who feel that they have a problem of possession and they don't know whether it's really supernatural or psychological," he said. "I think they want criteria with which they can distinguish if it's really the supernatural action of the devil or a psychological sickness."
The devil you know
Barahan is an expert on demons and satanic worship. It's an especially hot topic these days in Italy. A sensational murder case involving teenagers who practiced demonic worship and Satanic rituals has got the country worried about the spread of such cults, especially among young people. One Catholic sociologist who was a guest lecturer here claims these cults are on the rise, with up to 100,000 young people involved.
There's no proof to back up the claim, but the alarm is real. And if this crowded classroom is anything to go by, there's certainly interest in exorcism and the devil among Catholic priests.
Like many Catholics, Barahan is convinced that the devil is a real, very powerful entity and not simply a symbolic representation of evil. He's assisted in numerous exorcisms and says he's learned to tell when someone is truly possessed as opposed to mentally ill.
Protection against Satan?
"This is not so easy, but we have signs," Barahan said. "For example, the aversion against religious objects -- a cross or a rosary or blessed water. Sometimes these people have a lot of strength, not natural strength, against these kinds of signs. Sometimes they speak languages without having studied them before. Sometimes they know the future of other people. So there's not one sign, but several signs, especially, psychologically. You have a lot of instability as if you have two souls in one body."
Barrack explains he isn't an exorcist himself -- only priests appointed by their bishop can conduct exorcisms -- but he said his parishioners back home do come to him for help with a range of battles against evil: Anything from special prayers against temptation to protection against strange noises in their homes. But, he cautions, it doesn't mean the devil has taken them over.
"Certainly there could be a lot of temptation and oppression from the devil on a person," he said. "That does not mean possession. Possession is when a devil actually takes control of the person and the person does not have its own free will, so the devil is using the person to speak and act without the person freely consenting to that. That would be possession."
Barrack also said he believes that the devil is behind some of the New Age and other alternative spirituality groups. Even parents can be involved.
"I've noticed, from some people they've said maybe one of their parents dedicated them to Satan when they were born," he said. "There are many satanic cults or Gnostic groups, some that are well-respected in society, but behind the scenes there is this connection with Satan."
No witch hunts, please
Ridding Capitol Hill of demons?
But not all priests are so convinced. Father Gerry O'Collins is a renowned theologian at the Gregorian University in downtown Rome. He says there's a real danger in Catholics focusing too much on demons. He cites the witch hunts of the 16th century as an example of how people can get carried away.
"There's definitely a risk of people seeing the devil's hand all over the place and being superstitious," he said. "You can become caught up by that and even obsessed by it. And certainly official church leaders don't want freelance priests and others to play games. They want a wise old priest who's the official exorcist and who's skeptical and who knows what he's about and I think that's a happy situation."
O'Collins does believe that possessions can happen, but of all the people claiming to be possessed, most Catholic theologians estimated only a tiny number is the real thing.
"Yes, it can happen, but it's extremely rare," Collins said. "Maybe 2 percent of the cases you should take seriously."
For the dozens of priests who are following the exorcism course in Rome, that percentage is enough to study exorcism. And at the very least, Barahan said, priests can help people who are under the illusion they're possessed by getting them psychological help.