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Fr. Gary Thomas is a Vatican-certified practicing exorcist whose experience is the subject of the new movie The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins, scheduled for release on January 28. That movie is based on a 2009 book about Fr. Gary by journalist Matt Baglio, The Rite: The Making of A Modern Exorcist.
We interviewed Fr. Gary on the heels of the book’s release, about what is and isn’t true concerning exorcisms and demonic possession, and what this means in terms of our faith life. The book and upcoming movie chronicle Father Gary’s own Vatican training to become an exorcist, and give an inside look of the church’s use of the rite of exorcism and its role in contemporary life.
I’d you’d prefer to listen to the interview, you can play it here:
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Fr. Dave Dwyer: Father Gary, many of our listeners might be surprised to know that having a priest on staff at a diocese in the role of an exorcist is still something that we do. They may think, “Oh, well gee, isn’t that a thing of the past,” or, “Didn’t we get rid of that? ” or something like that. But it actually not only is common, but you went over to the Vatican for training. Is that about right?
Fr. Gary Thomas: I did. I finished my 12-year term as pastor of my previous parish, and was granted a one-year sabbatical. I laid out the things I had hoped to do on it. However, at the time, when I was going through the process of getting ready for the sabbatical, exorcism was not part of the equation. Exorcism became part of the equation toward just before the end of my term as a pastor, in which the bishop appointed me, and then said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a course in Rome, when you’re there, on exorcism.” But, halfway through the course — which is when I met Baglio [journalist Matt Baglio, author of The Rite: The Making of A Modern Exorcist] — halfway through the course, it became really apparent to me that I needed to tutor under an exorcist, that the course itself was good, but the course was not based itself on any practical training and so…
FD: I would imagine that it would be hard to be appointed by your bishop to fulfill that role without some sort of training. I mean, if they asked me to do that I’d be, “Well, okay, what should I do?”
FG: Well, most bishops, and this is not to knock the bishops, very few bishops really understand what’s involved in the ministry of exorcism, and I can say that, including my own bishop, who appointed me. And I think I, a number of times, tried to explain a variety of things to him, and he does very much believe in the reality of Satan, but I think that, even when I went over to take this course that I had no idea what was really going to be expected of me. It all kind of unfolded and evolved as time went on. And so, I think once I was training under Father Carmine De Filippis — whose name is in the book, who is one of the nine exorcists in Rome — it became very apparent to me not only that is this very serious, which I didn’t deny that it was, but the variety of situations and peoples’ experiences that were coming to Father Carmine and what really was required. And the course, I think, provided actually a lot of very important insight and information that really kind of helped supplement the actual practical teaching.
FD: Well, let’s talk about some basics for our listeners out there. And, we have a lot of Catholic listeners, even many non-Catholic listeners, and maybe the basics of the Church’s teaching that has to do with this, as in evil, as in Satan, as in being possessed by demons. We certainly see it in the Gospels and maybe some people relegate it to, “Well, there was a lot of stuff that happened in Jesus’ time that doesn’t happen anymore.” What is our real belief about this stuff as Catholics?
FG: Well, I think you simply have to begin with Scripture and then it really reaches an apex in the Paschal Mystery — the death and resurrection of Christ. In the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, there’s the first reference in the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent, which really constitutes what we say is the Fall of Man. It is out of the tensions which you find in the rhythms of the Old Testament that lead up to Jesus’ coming, where it’s very clear that that Christ’s mission is to conquer Satan, sin, death, and create the bridge for us to reach eternal life through the grace of the Son in the Father. And so, you know, the gospels of Matthew and Mark, in particular, are fraught with many, many clear examples of demonic possession, and Jesus as the exorcist who comes and delivers people from the throes of Satan and demons.
FD: Certainly there are those accounts in Scripture. In addition to healing somebody from blindness, or from some other sickness, it very clearly does say that somebody was possessed by a demon or he drove a whole bunch of them into the pigs and all that.
FG: Right. Right. We went through a phase, though, I think, in the post-Vatican II Church until somewhat recently, where I think a lot of biblical scholars saw exorcisms as really a metaphor for evil that really was unexplainable, and sometimes would think of possessions or the manifestations of possessions as being related to diseases that had yet to be discovered per se. But now, there’s a much sounder grounding that, no, Christ, in fact, was performing real-life exorcisms. And so, I encounter lots of Catholics who will say, “Oh, the Church is still doing those things?” or, “We still believe in Satan?” Satan hasn’t go away. He is relevant in and out of season.
FD: …You’re in the Diocese of San Jose? Is that right?
FG: That is correct.
FD: Even in California, where people think life is sort of relaxed and casual, sunny and pleasant, you in the course of your duties have been a part of — you have performed exorcisms, right?
FG: I have. I have.
FD: Well, tell us what that’s like, I mean, what would people not expect it to be. I suppose what many people bring to the table is Hollywood’s version of that. So, many people would have seen somewhere back in the day the film with Linda Blair, The Exorcist, so I guess, in terms of our recollection, is it like this…?
[Plays sound clip from the movie The Exorcist.]
“I command you by the judge of the living and the dead to depart from this servant of God. It’s the power… (Holy Water!)
The power of Christ compels you
The power of Christ compels you
The power of Christ compels you”
FD: So very familiar in our pop culture, and people even called in earlier in the show, Father Gary, with other movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose that are certainly based on true accounts, so people go, “Are the Hollywood directors just kind of juicing that up or is that kind of what you experience?”
FG: Sometimes that’s what I experience.
FD: Wow. Okay.
FG: And, what’s fascinating about that movie, just as a quick aside, it is amazing to me that that movie was made in about 1972, so that is about a 37-year-old movie. That movie is still inscribed in an icon kind of way in the minds of people when they think of exorcism. I cannot tell you how many times people have even cited that movie, “Oh, I saw the movie The Exorcist, is that what you do?” Not The Exorcism of Emily Rose but The Exorcist. It is just amazing that after all these years that movie still has an embedded memory in the minds of so many people. Yes, to answer your question, I have exorcised in my three years as an exorcist, I’ve exorcised five people, and I would say that there was one particular situation that would probably be pretty similar to what you just played in terms of the movie. I don’t use the word “compel” but I do certainly say, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ I demand you to leave,” and I will say that repeatedly in the midst of the prayers of exorcism from the Solemn Rite that I pray over the people.
FD: So essentially this is us saying, as a church, that is not just Hollywood lights and bells. We believe that some sort of demon, whether it is Satan himself and his minions can take over a human person.
FG: In a rare full possession, yes, but not every situation a full possession. In fact full possessions are very, very rare. However, less than full possessions are not quite as rare although they are not normative — what we would call an oppression or an obsession that sometimes does exist with people where they’re able on the one level to function but on another level they have opened a door or someone else has opened a door for them where a demon does have some serious influence. I would like to stress, though, you really have to invite the demon in. Or, someone else has to invite the demon in. Lots of times, though, people, out of fear, go, “What do we have to do to protect ourselves?” What I say back is largely, “Continue having a relationship with the Lord. Stay close to God in prayer, and refrain from being involved in things that would be considered to be the New Age — rituals of the New Age, rituals of the occult, things such as Wicca, or tarot cards, Ouija boards, superstitious practices, black magic, white magic, anything that would really be idolatrous. I think as long as people have a relationship with God and stay close to God, they really don’t have anything to fear in the sense of any of the kinds of things that we’re specifically talking about.
FD: So, is it part of your training that you can distinguish someone with, as you call it, a partial possession from something that is genuinely a psychological issue and/or do you hear people kind of critiquing the practice of exorcism, saying, “These days, don’t we just believe that all of that is schizophrenia or something else?”
FG: Right. And those are legitimate points. I have a team. And on my team, my exorcism team, I have a trained clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a physician, all of whom are practicing Catholics, and all of whom believe in the possibility of Satan’s existence, but they’re not people who says there’s a demon under every rock or chair. And I have two clergy, two priests, who are on the team as well. So, as a person, as a priest, who’s not a therapist, much of what I do involves what we would call discernment. So, how do we discern the spirit? Well, we discern the spirit by, first of all, asking a lot of probing questions, and then, you know, some of those questions involve not just their own personal spiritual life but the things they’ve been exposed to. And then you simply pray prayers of deliverance, really as a starting point, and you encourage people if they don’t have a sacramental life to return to the sacramental life, and then you pray with them over the course of time.
Sometimes it’s very clear when people come in that there really isn’t any particular diabolical doorway that they’ve opened, but sometimes you’re drawn to conclude that, because nothing else seems to make any sense or explain away their problems. So that’s why you have therapists. Sometimes I use a therapist. Sometimes I don’t. When it’s very, very clear that — sometimes people will say that they feel that they’ve had a curse put on them and then you ask them questions in which they can’t give you any definitive answers, either the person who put the curse on them, any reason why someone would have put the curse on them, any evidence that a curse has been put on them. Then you simply conclude, “Well, no curse has been put on you. You simply have chosen to believe that.”
There are things that happen that we can’t explain. When people, though, show signs of some kind of demoniacal manifestation such as foaming at the mouth or rolling of the eyes or taking on the appearance of a serpent sometimes or speaking in a language that they have no competency in but all of a sudden do, those are the classical signs. But again, that doesn’t always come in the first go-around. You have to ask all kinds of questions. You pray over people. You get them to go back to the sacraments if they’re not already, and then, you know, you say to them after you’ve prayed over them a couple of times and there’s no manifestation, nothing whatsoever — you simply encourage them to continue in their own prayer life. What I try not to do — I try not to give people, a) false hope, and b) share things with them that I just want them to go away. So if someone really doesn’t have what appears to be any kind of diabolical intrusion, I have no problem telling them that. It isn’t that I’m looking for more people to come and see me. You’re there to try to help people, and sometimes they’re just reassured that what they thought was, wasn’t.
FD: In the way you go, perhaps, to an oncologist and he says, “No, you don’t have cancer.”
FG: That’s correct.
FD: … I’m just wondering about how much of your time as a priest is devoted to this. Are people knocking on your door every day? Or, do you do this once a month or something?
FG: I would say probably 15 percent of my day, although not every day, but probably on average, at least 15 percent of my week is spent on this. So probably 15 percent of a 40-hour week, probably six hours of my week some weeks, maybe not so much other weeks. I just finished ministering to a person just before I came over here to wait for your phone call. And I exorcised a man on Monday and exorcised somebody else on Friday, and they were long sessions.
FD: Now, tell us about you as a priest, you as a believer. When you’re talking about something like that, is there some sort of prayer for yourself after you’ve been in contact with such evil? Is there part of the ritual or some sort of after words, or do you just run to hang out in the Blessed Sacrament or something? [Laughs.]
FG: Well, there’s protection. There’s a protection prayer that I pray — and then an authority prayer that I pray over the person — but the protection prayer is for the person, anyone else who is in the room and myself. And then the authority prayer is to take authority in the name of Christ over the demons and then you begin — and again, whether it’s the formal right or whether it is just deliverance prayers, this is just standard operating for me. So at the very beginning you pray protection prayers.
FD: So, how has this affected your faith, let’s say?
FG: Well, I mean, before I took on this role I certainly believed in the reality of Satan. I think, now that I’ve been in this ministry, I’ve been — I’ve never had a doubt — but anybody who has a doubt can simply come and see what I’ve seen at times and then maybe they won’t have doubts either. But, I think one thing it has done — it is a profoundly healing type of ministry. The people who come to me, in one way or another they all have — whether it’s something diabolical or whether it’s psychological, these are mostly people who are enduring great suffering.
FD: And I would imagine, thanks to your ministry you have been part of some success stories, some people who are really genuinely freer?
FG: Yes, I would say, at times. But, it’s really Christ who’s the exorcist. It’s really Christ who’s the exorcist and I’m the vessel through whom Christ works. It’s incredibly important that in my role — and I learned this when I was in the course in Rome — that the exorcist always remain a truly humble prayerful person, because when you begin to see how the prayers you use agitate demons and sometimes deliver people from them, human nature being what it is can sometimes bloat — and Satan is also part of that in the bloating of — the exorcist’s ego in ways that can sometimes really assist the exorcist in losing his own effectiveness, cause he thinks that he’s the one responsible, but it’s really Christ.
FD: And, then they right a book about you, and that doesn’t help the ego.
FG: Well, again, I haven’t let any of this get bigger than it is…
FD: God bless you. [Laughs.]
FG: Even the movie that’s hopefully going to come out. The book — again, Matt wrote the book to really help educate the average Catholic and the average person about what the Roman Catholic Church is trying to do in this area, and I think he actually — and I’m not saying this to toot my own horn — I do think it’s a good read, and it is very informative, and kind of has a textbook feel, told in a story form. And I think there’s a lot of really good information in there. The book was sent to every bishop in the United States by my request with a letter from me, and every rector of every seminary in the U.S. with a letter from me. So I communicated with every rector and every bishop in the U.S., encouraging them, a) to train an exorcist, which is what John Paul II asked us before he died, and b) to help the seminary rectors begin to take this on in formation because there’s very, very few priests who have any exposure to this.
FD: …It sounds like you are a happy, healthy priest, and you’ve got just a new role in your life.
FG: I hope I’m happy and healthy. I think of myself as. The happiness is just a fleeting moment but more and more I find this more satisfying and meaningful.
FD: So, it’s a ministry that you would recommend to priests?
FG: Well, I think, to the right priests. I got into it providentially. I think a lot of guys today have the inclination to do this but sometimes it’s a matter of a) having the confidence, and b) recognizing that you don’t have to be afraid of the demons. You have to respect them but you don’t have to be afraid.
FD: And have you been scared?
FG: No, I’ve never been afraid.
FG: No. Never.
FG: And, the exorcist gets attacked, but I’m not afraid. And it’s got to be a grace, because most people I know, and most priests I know, want nothing to do with it.
FD: Well, Father Gary, God bless you. This is a needed service in the church, because as you have pointed out earlier, there’s plenty of evil out there, we don’t have to look too far to find it, and hopefully your book, in the hands of all the bishops and the seminaries, will maybe get it a little more well known.
FG: I hope so.
FD: Well, thanks for joining us on the Busted Halo Show.
FG: Thanks, Father.
(Originally aired: 10/29/09)