Unafraid of criticism for bringing back what many see as a reminder of the superstitions of the Middle Ages, the Vatican last month faced the demonic threat by hosting its largest convention on exorcism.
Called "Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation," the meeting included a six-day course to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in the ancient rite of exorcism.
In 1999 the Vatican updated the exorcism ritual for the first time since 1614. The text to read during the exorcism remained essentially unchanged, but the church cautioned not to mistake mental illness for demonic possessions. It said that signs for a person being under the devil’s control include speaking in a language the possessed person doesn't know and abnormal displays of strength.
There are currently some 250 exorcist priests in Italy, but many more are needed, said the meeting organizers.
"Just in the dioceses of Rome, we record a high percentage of calls requesting the services of an exorcist," said Cesar Truqui, a priest and exorcist from Switzerland.
It is said that Pope Francis himself performed an exorcism last year after his usual Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square.
Although the Vatican denied the rite, TV footage showed a young man in a wheelchair, opening his mouth and either screaming or breathing deeply as Francis put his hands on his head. The man then convulsed and slumped in his chair.
According to Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University and the author of "The Origin of Satan," the idea of a continuous struggle between God’s spirit and the devil prompted Christians to identify themselves with God from the very beginning.
They identified their opponents, whether Jews, pagans and heretics, as Satan, thus revealing new, social implications in the figure of the devil, which was used to identify enemies.
"For people who take the evil seriously, whether in the first century or the 21st, it’s not just about some imaginarily contest of spiritual forces up in the stratosphere, it's also about seeing the world divided between those they see as 'God's people' and 'Satan's people'," Pagels told Discovery News.
"So when someone says, for example: ‘Satan is trying to take over this country’ -- that person probably could give you names and addresses of the people in mind,” she said.