Rumors are swirling that Pope Francis performed an exorcism when a TV program showed him placing his hands on the head of a wheelchair-bound man in St. Peter's Square following Sunday's Pentecost Mass.
Caught on film by the Italian Bishops Conference television station, Francis is seen holding the man's head and muttering what appears to be a prayer while the young man heaves, shakes, and then slumps over.
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The station, TV2000, hosts a weekly program called "Vade Retro" and in this week's episode questioned exorcists who confirmed there is "no doubt" that Francis performed an exorcism or a prayer to free the man from the devil.
"The exorcists who have seen the images have no doubt: this was a liberation prayer from evil, or a real act of exorcism," TV2000 journalists said.
The Vatican released a carefully worded statement and downplayed the supposed exorcism.
"[Pope Francis] didn't intend to perform any exorcism," the statement read, "but as he often does for the sick or suffering, he simply intended to pray for someone."
Only a priest authorized by a bishop can perform an exorcism, and canon law specifies that the exorcist must be "endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity."
Italian newspapers noted that the late Pope John Paul II performed an exorcism in 1982 — near the same spot where Francis prayed over the young disabled man on Sunday.
"John Paul II fought many times against Satan," Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic Church's best-known exorcist and the head of the International Association of Exorcists, told La Repubblica newspaper. "Those battles continue, even though he is dead. In fact he is present today in many exorcisms. If you cite his name during an exorcism, the person who is possessed literally froths at the mouth in fury."
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Pope Francis has made repeated references to Satan in his homilies since being appointed as Benedict's successor in March.
In his very first homily as pope on March 14, Francis warned cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel that "he who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil."
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