MADISON, N.J. — The Rev. Vincent Lampert knows Hollywood has created an image of his profession, a dark figure in a hat looking up at a window, preparing to cast out demons.
He says most exorcisms aren't as dramatic as they appear in movies, but some come close.
There was the time in Italy when a woman shook violently and Lampert said he saw her levitate above a chair.
"If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it," Lampert, 48, a Roman Catholic priest and designated exorcist for the Diocese of Indianapolis, said in a recent telephone interview. "There was nothing between her and the chair. My jaw must have been open."
When speaking to groups, Lampert, who said he's always in demand in October, typically talks about the relevancy of exorcism in modern times, and about a moral crisis of people moving away from God that he says has led to a rise of secularism and superstition. He said he's one of just 36 Vatican-trained exorcists in the U.S., a number that's tripled over the past 10 years as the Catholic Church reportedly tries to stem a movement of people seeking answers in the occult.
"People were turning elsewhere for help to figure out what's going on." Lampert said.
It's not clear how many priests perform exorcisms in the U.S., and how many are performed. Lampert said every bishop is authorized to perform the Rite of Exorcism and may bestow the authority to perform that rite on priests.
Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, N.J., say they have a designated exorcist, a priest who has performed at least two exorcisms over the past couple of years.
That priest's identity is kept secret from the public, said Ken Mullaney, the diocese attorney, because church officials don't want him to be inundated by exorcism requests. No exorcism is allowed to proceed without the approval of Paterson Diocese Bishop Arthur Serratelli, Mullaney said. The diocese also has another requirement implemented by Mullaney two years ago: Subjects must sign a waiver form.
"I've been told that an exorcism can get pretty physical," Mullaney said. "I wanted to protect priests and the church from anyone making claims against them. ... They don't teach you this in law school."
Lampert said exorcisms are rare, and that he's performed just three since completing his training in Rome in 2006, even though he said he's counseled hundreds of people who believed they might have been possessed. All prospective subjects go through counseling with a psychologist, he said.
He said a small portion have something going on that can't be explained by mental health professionals. He said they typically exhibit extraordinary strength, respond to Latin even though they don't know the language, and have an aversion to places and objects considered sacred, such as Holy Water.
Lampert said he prefers to be out in the open, rather than keeping his identity a secret, because that makes him more accessible. He said he receives about six calls a week from people seeking exorcism services.
Becoming an exorcist
He was pegged by the Indianapolis Archbishop to become an exorcist after another priest designated to perform that service died in 2005. He said he was sent to Rome with this advice from the Archbishop: "I don't know what I'm asking you to do. Go and find out."
He spent three months in Rome where he was mentored by the Rev. Carmine De Filippis. Another student there was the Rev. Gary Thomas, a California priest whose experiences became part of a book by author Matt Baglio called "The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist," which became the basis of a fictionalized movie. Lampert's experiences, and the levitation he said he witnessed, are included in the book.
De Filippis simply pushed the woman back down in a matter-of-fact way that almost ignored the presence of evil, according to Lampert, who added that he didn't experience any fear during the exorcism.
He said demons don't jump from one person to another, that possession is not a communicable disease, and he tells people evil is not contagious the way it's sometimes portrayed by Hollywood. He said he witnessed about 40 exorcisms while in Rome and most were not all that exciting.
He said some people thought their marital problems were caused by evil, and De Filippis directed them to get to get counseling, sometimes using exorcism as "one component" of a larger treatment.
"Some people think every little trouble is caused by evil," Lampert said. "Exorcists are trained to be skeptics. When someone comes to me and says they are possessed, my first thought is: 'No you're not.'"
He said not everyone believes him when he determines they are not possessed, and some seek help elsewhere by consulting specialists in the paranormal. He said some symptoms of possession are eyes rolling back in the head, mouths foaming, faces changing color. But he added that symptoms might be caused by medical conditions. And he said he won't perform an exorcism unless he's sure the subject is possessed.