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Return of the Devil: Exorcism's Comeback in the Catholic Church 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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Every Thursday evening, a few dozen people file into Immaculate Conception Chapel, a small Catholic church on the steep slope of Folsom Street on Bernal Hill's north face, carrying bottles of water, tubs of protein powder, small bottles of booze, watches, rosaries, and cell phones.

They place these items on small tables and on the rails at the front of the church, below the altar and the figure of Christ nailed to the cross set deep into the chapel's far wall. Then they find a spot in one of the 13 rows of pews, to sit or kneel as they pray in silence. For a long while, the only noise comes from the wheeze of the 67-Bernal Heights bus as it chugs up the hill or the whir of the church's HVAC sys flitem.

The people stir a few minutes past 7 p.m. when a tiny man wearing white robes — a long rectangle of cloth with Vegas-worthy golden sparkles hanging around his neck — appears from a door to the left of the altar. A few weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Father Guglielmo Lauriola walks slowly across the raised altar area to a waiting chair. Here he sits, facing away from his congregation in the style of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, to read from laminated card prayers and songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. Aside from Jesus on the cross, she is the principal figure of veneration here at the 104-year-old church.

When this is finished, in about half an hour, the two middle-aged Filipinas who serve as Lauriola's lectors and attendants, towering over his five-foot-ish frame, help him into different robes. Then the Franciscan priest — the pastor of this church for over 40 years — starts a second Mass, this one facing his parishioners.

Everything follows the liturgy, the script that would be recognizable to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics even if Lauriola were speaking in Klingon. He reads from the Bible. He delivers a short sermon, talking about the time he welcomed some Muslims in the neighborhood into the church. (Their god is not so different from his God, he says.) He gets up, the smell of incense thick in the room, to fling water from a small wand onto the personal items arrayed on the table, granting them all — water, booze, phones — a blessing. The parishioners line up to receive Communion, the small wafers of bread that Catholics believe becomes the physical body of Jesus Christ.

Then come — for fidgety schoolchildren or for the rote Catholics eager to get on with their day and go home — the magic words. "The Mass is ended," Lauriola says, his accent like a thick layer of lacquer over a well-worn pew. "Go in peace."

Nobody moves. This is when the show really starts.

Two men step forward approach Lauriola, who has shuffled to the center of the altar area, in the same spot where he offered Communion. They stay on the church's main floor, two steps below, flanking him on either side. The people line up in the same way they did when receiving Communion, but instead of a piece of consecrated bread, this time they're waiting their turn to hold Lauriola's hands for about 20 to 30 seconds as he offers each of them a special prayer. As Lauriola murmurs his blessing, the two men hold their hands up behind the person receiving it, their palms held out and a few inches away from the person's back, as if preparing for a trust fall at a work retreat.

It's a necessary move. After Lauriola releases his grip, some of the people stagger away as if stricken, caught by the waiting hands. Some need to be helped to the altar, where they kneel to pray. Every once in awhile, the blessed person will fall to the floor as if they fainted. Sometimes they may remain there for as long as 10 or 15 minutes while the rest of the congregation files around them to receive their own blessings, with their own reactions.

When this is all over, the two men come forward again. This time, they help Lauriola down the two steps from the raised altar area. The blessed parishioners, by now back in their pews, rise again, forming a circle around the elf-sized priest as he approaches them. They hold their hands over him, as if receiving his energy. And they pray.

This is not an ordinary Catholic Mass — it's a healing Mass. The prayers here are for sick people, for deliverance. Some of the prayers are to be rid of evil, of the influence of the devil in their lives — to be free of the hold Satan has on their bodies and souls.

This is exactly the right place for that kind of prayer. This is the house of an exorcist.

Lauriola is one of two Catholic exorcists — priests whose official duty it is to perform the Solemn Rite of Exorcism, the formal casting-out of the devil or a demon from a Catholic's body and soul — living and working in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which includes Marin and San Mateo counties as well as the city. (The blessing that Lauriola gave, he explains to me later, is a minor exorcism, one large step below the formal rite.)

In the 21st century, even as Pope Francis embraces progressive ideas like climate change and urges world leaders to do something about income inequality, the rite of exorcism is enjoying a renaissance in the Catholic Church.

"I believe in exorcism," says Angela Alioto, a former President of the Board of Supervisors and the daughter of Mayor Joe Alioto, who presided over the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I believe people are possessed. I believe what our Lord did in the Gospels. I absolutely believe in that."

"I think people were hiding [exorcism] more before," says Alioto, a fervent Catholic and practicing attorney in North Beach. "I think they were still doing it, they just kept it quiet. Now they're not being as quiet as they used to be."


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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