Pope Francis told priests attending a confession course that they "should not hesitate" to call exorcists in the event that they discern "genuine spiritual disturbances" in penitents.
The program was organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary — a Vatican body that deals with issues regarding the sacrament of reconciliation. The pontiff described a good confessor — a priest who listens to penitents and grants spiritual counsel and absolution — as a "true friend of Jesus" and "a man of the Spirit."
According to a report, the pontiff discussed how those who submit to confession may come under desperate circumstances, such as situations in which confessors are required to enter the "peripheries of evil and sin."
"They could also have spiritual disturbances, whose nature should be submitted to careful discernment," Pope Francis told the program's participants. He stressed that confessors must consider all the circumstances that surround the penitent.
He urged priests to consult with professionals to determine whether a penitent is suffering from psychological conditions or if other forces are at work. In the event that a confessor ascertains that a demonic influence is affecting a person who is going to submit to confession, Pope Francis told confessors not to hesitate to call in an exorcist that was "chosen with great care and prudence."
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops defines "exorcism" as "a specific form of prayer that the Church uses against the power of the devil."
In 1999, the Vatican released revised guidelines on exorcism practices amidst confusion between possessions and mental illnesses. The revised protocols state that psychiatric and medical examinations must be explored first before administering exorcism.
Compared to his recent predecessors, Pope Francis has been very vocal about his campaigns and views against the devil. In his first homily as a pope, he warned the people that: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil."
In December 2016, the pontiff stated that the "devil has been inspiring resistance" against his Vatican reforms. In a discourse with the officials of several religious orders in February, Pope Francis affirmed the prominence of "the presence of the devil" in reports of clerical sexual abuse.