Pity the poor exorcist, caught between evil spirits eager to invade human bodies and a society skeptical that demons exist outside of Hollywood horror movies.
Even some church leaders look askance at exorcists as peddlers of a practice best left in the Middle Ages. Most American exorcists, particularly the handful of priests appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, keep a low profile, hesitating to open themselves — or their church — to ridicule and quacks.
But exorcists may soon be moving out of the shadows.
U.S. Catholic bishops sponsored a conference Nov. 12-13 in Baltimore on the “liturgical and pastoral practice of exorcism.” Fifty-six bishops and 66 priests have registered to hear about the shortage of trained exorcists and the growing interest in the mysterious rite, according to Catholic News Service.
That's good news for the Rev. Gary Thomas, a loquacious, Silicon Valley priest eager to dish about exorcism and the art of spiritual warfare.
Thomas is pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, CA, and the official exorcist for the Diocese of San Jose. According to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, IL, who helped organize the Baltimore conference, Thomas is one of only five or six active exorcists in the U.S.
Last year, Thomas wrote to 121 Catholic bishops and 41 seminary rectors, urging them to train more priests in demon de-possession. Included with the letters were copies of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a book by journalist Matt Baglio that details Thomas’ three-year journey from California clergyman to university-trained “spiritual detective.”
“I hope that you will take the time to read this book and become better informed about a subject that many Catholics priests deem superstitious and medieval,” Thomas wrote in the letter to the bishops. These are apocalyptic times, the priest says, and exorcists are needed now more than ever.
So, why haven’t more bishops appointed exorcists? “Because they do not believe in them,” Thomas answered. “In my opinion, then, they should not be bishops.”
After all, salvation through Jesus is necessary because a certain someone — i.e. Satan — tempted Adam and Eve to eat a very unfortunate apple, Thomas said, thus bringing sin and evil into the world. Without Satan, the salvation story falls apart, the priest said.
The first Christian exorcisms were performed by Jesus himself, who freed a number of sufferers from “the domination of demons,” in the words of the Catholic Catechism — and instructed his followers to do the same. “And these signs will accompany those who believe,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, “by using my name they will cast out demons.”
Every Catholic still undergoes what the church calls a “simple exorcism” at baptism, when their godparents recite prayers renouncing Satan and rinsing the stain of Original Sin.
Serious cases of diabolical possession are usually manifested by superhuman strength, speaking in unfamiliar languages, and a raging hostility to sacred objects like crucifixes, according to exorcists; these require “major exorcisms,” which are only to be performed by priests, with permission from their bishops.
The Catholic Church updated its Rite of Exorcism, in which the power of Jesus is invoked to expel demons, in 1999, bringing a text written in 1614 into the 20th century. The Vatican warned that exorcists should “demonstrate maximum circumspection and prudence,” and approach the possessed person as they would anyone who suffers from physical or psychological illness.
Thomas knew little of this in 2005, when his bishop sent him to Rome to train as an exorcist. At Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican-sanctioned school run by the conservative Legion of Christ religious order, Thomas learned about detecting demons, how spirits fit into Catholic theology, and the source of the devil’s power.
He also apprenticed with a veteran Italian exorcist, sitting in on 80 of his appointments with reportedly possessed people. In Italy, where more than half a million people seek out an exorcist annually, exorcisms are commonplace — more like going to the dentist than starring in a horror movie, Baglio reports.
In America, however, exorcism has often been relegated to the dark corners of the church — or the silver screen. Most demonic possessions, however, are nothing like Linda Blair’s head-turning role in the famous 1973 movie “The Exorcist,” Thomas said.
Thomas said 10 bishops and seminary rectors responded to his letters, thanking him for sending the book but saying little more. “I thought I would’ve gotten a lot more (letters) by now,” he said wistfully.
But if the bishops aren’t game, Hollywood is. New Line Cinema, a major movie studio, bought the rights for The Rite, and hired a Hollywood veteran to direct.
Thomas said he was paid $25,000 when the film rights were sold, all of which he will give away; exorcists are not allowed to take money for their services, and the priest said he doesn’t want to get a big head.
“The worst thing for me would be to become a celebrity,” Thomas said. “That would be a great way to derail me, and that’s exactly what the devil wants.”