Leave exorcism to the experts, warns Church

Rome, Italy - A far cry from sorcerers, satanists and other practitioners whom he dismisses as "charlatans," Italian exorcist Andrea Gemma fights the devil only with the strength of his prayers and advises Catholics: 'Don't do this at home".

A rotund, expansive Neapolitan, the 74-year-old bishop was the first lecturer to face the Catholic Church's latest crop of budding exorcists at a unique course run by clergy at Rome's Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University. The course began Thursday and will run for several weeks.

Faced with a classroom of 50 priests intent on learning how best to take on the devil, the veteran Gemma profiles his ideal comrade at arms, spiritually-speaking: "Live a holy life, work hard and be devoted to the Madonna".

The students at this second course -- the first course of its kind drew more than 100 priests last year -- include lay Catholics.

"If you reject God you leave a place for his enemy. Neutrality is not an option," the priest who heads the course, Father Gabriele Nanni of the ultra-conservative congregation Legionaires of Christ, tells them.

"And in our societies given over to neo-paganism, agnosticism, to a revolt against God, it was inevitable that the demon would find more space to act," he said.

Father Gemma is also convinced. In his small southern Italian diocese of Isernia, which has a population of 60,000 souls, he has nominated four exorcist priests -- well above the Italian average, where priests authorised to carry out exorcisms number in the several hundreds.

But he criticised the Italian bishops' council for being insufficiently committed to hunting down demons, though he said he was encouraged by

Pope Benedict XVI's recent public support for priests tasked with such missions.

The pope had a brief exchange with a few of the priests attending a congress of Italian exorcists after one of his weekly general audiences last month, telling them to "continue your important mission in the service of the Church."

The prelate, whose titanic struggles against the devil fills several of his books, recognizes that not all the cases referred to him require exorcism.

Some are "poor people who need someone to listen to them," he said. "But those priests who send them away without listening to them patiently are not fit for the priesthood."

When someone is really possessed by the devil, he said, "freeing them of it can take months, if not years."

But the bishop is certain of one thing: "The devil is not the God of evil, God is stronger."

Asked about his method of discerning real cases of possession from other psychological illnesses, the priest revealed his "secret weapon":

"If I speak Latin, the demon responds to me in Latin. He has a horror of that language."