Convinced that the devil's lure is on the rise among the young, the Vatican is responding with a new special course on Satanism, black magic, and the healing power of exorcism.

The two-month course began at the "Regina Apostolorum," one of Rome's prestigious pontifical universities. The course has been described as both "theoretical and practical" and is open to priests and theology students only.

Teachers include exorcists and psychiatrists. One of the issues that will be addressed is how to tell the difference between someone who is possessed and someone who simply has psychological problems.

The new course stemmed from alarm in the Vatican with the growing interest in Satanism and its practices. A respected research institute, Eurispes, has catalogued 650 satanic organizations in Italy.

Church officials have estimated that half a million Italians have had contact with satanic sects. Experts say these sects are growing very quickly. They add that young people especially are exposed to the phenomenon through the media, rock music and the Internet.

The Vatican also has felt young people are turning away from God and toward the occult. A number of recent incidents involving young people who had fallen victim to devil-worshipping sects in Italy highlighted the problem.

In one of the most disturbing cases, two teenage heavy metal musicians were killed in a human sacrifice by fellow band members.

In 1999, under the guidance of its chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican updated the ritual for exorcism for the first time since 1614.

Guidelines tell priests authorized to carry out exorcisms to "diligently examine the facts," before sprinkling holy water on someone claiming to be possessed by Satan.

Students in the Vatican course will be taught to be vigilant for signs of Satan's presence, which include speaking in unknown languages and showing disproportionate physical strength.