In 2007, the Vatican’s chief exorcist revealed an initiative to install an exorcist in every diocese worldwide. Three days later, the Vatican denied the story.
Father Gary Thomas was working as a parish priest in California when church leaders asked him to travel to Rome for training in the rite of exorcism. In Rome, as an apprentice to a veteran Italian exorcist, his eyes were opened to a darker side of the Catholic faith he had never known, and he came to see the battle between good and evil as never before. Journalist Matt Baglio had full access to Father Gary over the course of his training, and the astonishing story he found reveals that the phenomena of possession, demons, the Devil, and exorcism are not merely a remnant of the archaic past, but remain a fearsome power in many people’s lives even today. The inspiration for the movie The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins, this book provides a uniquely intimate glimpse into the chilling world of a real-life Roman Catholic exorcist.
The thirty-five-year-old woman lay on a padded folding massage table, her arms and legs held by two men. She wore a black Puma sweat suit and her dark brown hair was pulled back tightly into a ponytail. While not heavy, she was a little on the stocky side; and as she grunted and struggled, the men fought to hold on. Nearby, another man and woman hovered, ready to intervene. The exorcist stood a few feet away, a small crucifix in one hand and a silver canister filled with holy water in the other. Surveying the scene, he had a decision to make. The exorcism had been going on for the better part of an hour, and the strain was beginning to show on everyone. Should he continue?
Suddenly the woman's head turned, her eyes fixating on a spot near the far wall. "No!" the demon said in a deep guttural voice coming from deep within her, "the one in black is here, the jinx!"
The exorcist felt a momentary ray of hope, knowing from past exorcisms that this was the demon's code to describe Saint Gemma Galgani.
"And the little white one from Albania!" the demon roared.
"Mother Teresa of Calcutta?" the exorcist asked.
The demon let fly a string of blasphemies in a rage, then his voice took on a mocking childlike tone. "Oh, look at them! Look at them! They are hugging and greeting each other!" Then, back to a deep guttural rasp, "Disgusting! Disgusting!"
To the woman lying on the table, the two figures appeared as if in a dream. Saint Gemma was dressed in her traditional black, and looked very much as she had in her twenties. Oddly, Mother Teresa also looked very young--perhaps only twenty-five.
The exorcist glanced over his shoulder to where the woman was staring and saw nothing but the blank wall. "Let us thank Saint Gemma Galgani and Mother Teresa for being here with us today," he said.
"No, him too. Send him away, send him away!" the demon wailed.
Unsure of who had just arrived, the exorcist added, "I say thank you that he is here."
Then suddenly the woman sat bolt upright, her arms extended in front of her as if she'd been yanked up by some unseen force. "Leave me alone!" the demon screamed, even as the woman flailed to break free from the invisible grasp. The two men went to pull her back down, but the exorcist motioned for them to stop. "Let's see who just came. In the name of Jesus and the Immaculate Virgin, who is this person?"
"Nooooooo!" the guttural, ferocious voice growled. "Totus tuuuuuus!"
The exorcist smiled inwardly, recognizing the Latin motto. "Thank you, Holy Father John Paul II, for coming to help our sister," he said.
"No, no!" the demon shrieked. "Damn you! Get away from me!"
Again, in her dreamlike state, the woman watched Pope John Paul II, who seemed no older than thirty and was dressed all in white, bless her forehead three times.
Wanting to take advantage of the apparent reinforcements, the exorcist pressed on. "Repeat after me: Eternal Father, you are my Creator and I adore you," he said to the demon.
"Up yours!" the voice responded.
"Eternal Father, you are my Creator and I adore you," the exorcist insisted.
"A bomb is going to explode if I say it!" the demon shouted.
"I order you, in the name of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and in the name of Jesus Christ, to repeat those words," the priest commanded again.
All at once, the woman felt awash in an incredible feeling of love as the veiled figure of Mary appeared before her, wrapped in a gold and white veil that covered half her face. Watching in amazement as the figure approached, the woman was even more surprised to see that Mary was gazing at her tearfully.
As the exorcist watched, the demon once again went into a fit. "No, no, no, don't cry!" he screamed, and the woman's body practically convulsed.
Then for an instant the woman snapped out of the trance, saying, "A tear from Mary is all it took," before falling back into the state.
The exorcist was elated to know that Mary was present and helping. He instantly launched into a Hail Mary. Everyone in the room joined in, even the woman on the table. Yet somehow the exorcist knew it wasn't over. The demon must be hiding to allow her to recite the prayer, he thought. "Say after me: Eternal Father, you are my Creator and I adore you," he said to the demon.
The woman thrashed and screamed. "No!" the demon barked. "I'm not going to say it! I must not say it, I can't; it is against everything."
The exorcist could feel that the demon was weakening. He asked everyone in the room to kneel. "Eternal Father, you are my Creator and I adore you," he intoned, while everyone repeated him.
The woman, sensing the torment of the demon, saw all the saints in the room respond as well.
"No, no, even those other ones kneeled down--the white one, the black one, and the little white one," the demon said. Then the exorcist noticed that the demon's voice changed slightly to a tone of forced reverence when he added, "Her, her [Mary]--she kneeled down as well."
This must be it, the exorcist thought. The demon is going to break. "In the name of Jesus Christ, I order you to repeat the phrase."
The woman struggled, but slowly a croaking noise came from her throat. "Eee . . . ter . . . nal . . . Fa . . . ther . . . , I must . . . ad . . . ooor . . . yooou."
Ecstatic, but realizing it was still not over yet, the exorcist made the demon repeat the phrase two more times. When the demon had finished, the exorcist recited the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer: "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever."
"This humiliation was given for the glory of God, not because you commanded it but because God commanded it. You are damned," the demon said, addressing the exorcist.
The exorcist did not falter. "Che Dio sia benedetto," he continued, God be praised.
"I go away but you are going to be damned for life," the demon sneered. "You and your companions, you are going to be persecuted for life!"
When people hear the word exorcism, many think of images made popular by Hollywood films--girls writhing in torment, their bodies contorting in impossible ways as they launch a continuous stream of pea-soup-green projectile vomit. In truth, such theatrics, as well as those in the woman's exorcism that took place in January 2007, in Rome, Italy, are quite rare. Instead, exorcisms can be rather mundane, almost like going to the dentist--complete with a stint in the waiting room and a card to remind the recipient of his or her next appointment. The reality is that few people realize what goes on during an exorcism, and that is true for Catholic priests as well--many of whom would just as soon forget that exorcism exists at all.
The word exorcism itself is an ecclesiastical term that comes from the Greek exorkizo, meaning "to bind with an oath," or to demand insistently. During an exorcism, a demon is commanded in the name of God to stop his activity within a particular person or place. As understood by the Catholic Church, an exorcism is an official rite carried out by a priest who has been authorized to do so by his bishop. In ancient times, exorcism was an important way for early Christians to win converts and prove the veracity of the faith. The power itself comes from Jesus, who performed numerous exorcisms as detailed in the New Testament, later instructing his disciples to do the same.
In light of the tremendous advances in modern medicine--including a more sophisticated understanding of neurological and psychological illnesses, the advent of psychoanalysis, and similar advantages--the rite of exorcism has become an embarrassment to many within the Church, who see it as a superstitious relic from the days when illnesses like epilepsy and schizophrenia were considered "devils" to be cast out.
Much of this misunderstanding comes from the nature of exorcism itself, as well as from the Devil's attributes that have more foundation in folklore than theology. A beast with horns and half a goat's body ravaging innocent virgins in the dead of night? Soul-leaching, shape-shifting she-demons on the prowl for their next victim? Without courses on demonology to educate seminarians, it's no wonder priests have turned away in droves from this exorcism stuff.
At the core of the issue lies the problem of evil. Is it a physical reality, a fallen angel called Satan (as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a small but dense book of about 900 pages says), or is it a lack of good in something, an inability to live up to the designs of the benevolent Creator?
Many priests, not wanting to turn their backs on the rich history associated with their faith, while at the same time wanting to embrace the modern view of reality in which the Devil is seen as a metaphor, would like to have it both ways. Others believe in the traditional teachings, but prefer not to talk about it. On the extreme end, some priests just flat out deny the Devil's existence.
Ironically, while many priests and bishops seemed bent on skepticism, the general public has become enamored with the occult, gravitating to new religions such as Wicca. According to an American Religious Identity Survey, Wicca grew in America from 8,000 members in 1990 to over 134,000 in 2001. (By 2006, that number was said to have risen to more than 800,000.) Sales of occult and New Age books have also skyrocketed, as has the number of people who believe in angels and demons (according to a 2004 Gallup poll, about 70 percent of Americans said they believe in the Devil). All this coincides with an explosion in the numbers of people who say they are afflicted by evil spirits. According to the Association of Italian Catholic Psychiatrists and Psychologists, in Italy alone, more than 500,000 people see an exorcist annually.
For many years, a small but vocal group of overworked exorcists in Italy, led by Father Gabriele Amorth, has tried to get the Church to take the increasing numbers of people who claim to be possessed more seriously. First, they said, more exorcists need to be appointed. However, the Church would have to ensure that any new exorcists be properly trained. Advocates such as Father Amorth assert that in the past, too many exorcists were appointed in name only. In addition, some of these "untrained" exorcists gave the rite of exorcism a bad name by abusing their authority. One of the most egregious cases took place in 2005, when a Romanian nun who'd been gagged and bound to a crucifix in a room at her convent was found dead; the priest who had been performing the exorcism was charged with murder.
Hoping to rectify the situation, in the fall of 2004 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the various Catholic dioceses around the world, starting with those in America, asking each bishop to appoint an official exorcist.
At the same time, a Vatican-affiliated University in Rome began putting together a groundbreaking course entitled "Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation" with the intention of educating a new cadre of exorcists about the official teachings of the Church on the Devil and exorcism.
A remarkable American priest answered this call and traveled to Rome in the summer of 2005 to be trained as an exorcist. Over the span of nine months he delved deeply into a world he never knew existed, completing the course and participating in over eighty exorcisms along with a senior Italian exorcist. As a result, his view of the world--and his place in it¯changed dramatically, and he later returned to the United States, determined to use his new awareness of evil and its manifest presence to help people in their everyday lives.
Excerpted from The Rite by Matt Baglio. Copyright © 2009 by Matt Baglio. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Rite, by journalist Matt Baglio, delves into the fascinating world of exorcism. Baglio graciously agreed to talk to us about his own feelings on exorcism.
Question: Exorcisms seem to be a topic most people like to observe from afar. What prompted you to get up close and write this book?
Matt Baglio: The idea for the book came about when I heard about a Vatican affiliated University in Rome that was offering a course that purported to train exorcists. Not knowing anything about exorcism I was instantly curious as to why the Catholic Church would still believe in such a thing and also how they might structure such thing. When I went down to the course I had many of my own preconceptions about exorcism reversed. It was also there where I met the Rev. Gary Thomas, a Catholic priest from California who had come to Rome at the behest of his bishop to learn about exorcism. Father Gary was very honest and open with me and agreed to let me follow him on his journey, which I thought would provide a unique look at the world of exorcism—through the eyes of an exorcist just getting started.
Q: What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing this book? Were you ever afraid that you would become subjected to evil by witnessing it firsthand?
M: The first challenge was just getting the story right. Exorcism itself is such a polarizing topic that I wanted to push all that hyperbole aside and just write about the reality of this world as it existed. I also wanted an exorcist or a Catholic theologian to be able to read my book and be able to say that it was accurate. Not knowing anything about exorcism I had to do a lot of research, including seeing exorcisms for myself. As an outsider it was very hard to gain access to this world, but I knew that if the book was to have any merit it would have to be accurate. In the beginning I was a little nervous about seeing exorcisms but that had more to do with the fear of the unknown. I have a very active imagination and Hollywood movies didn’t help either. But the more I read and researched the topic the more I calmed down. The experts were telling me that demonic possession wasn’t a disease that you could catch. What’s also true is that if you have any empathy at all as soon as you see an exorcism you realize that the person is suffering and you want to help them and so you lose your fear.
Q: In writing the book, did you have any historical references or case studies of particular note?
M: I tried to make the book as current as possible. I read a lot about cases that had happened in the distant past, but my goal was to write the most up to date book as possible. All the cases in that are covered in the book happen after 2000 and some as late as 2010. In fact a few are still ongoing even today.
Q: How did this journey into the world of contemporary exorcists change you personally?
M: I had to research a lot and the whole process taught me a lot about faith and my own religion that I had taken for granted. It definitely made me a more spiritual person and made me more respectful of those who have faith.
Q: What was it like to witness the exorcisms you did with Father Gary?
M: The best word is probably bizarre. They didn’t match up to what I expected I would see. Though by the time I did see them I had interviewed enough exorcists to know what to expect. Still, I would characterize them as like nothing I had read about before. For one, they could be quite short, only 20 minutes. In other instances the people’s reaction could be quite mild, involving only yawning or coughing. Still I did see a few that were violent, and listened to one through a door in which the person’s voice sounded gruff and guttural and gave me the chills. Father Gary, of course, saw much stronger cases and those make up the bulk of the book.
Q: Why do some people become possessed by evil and others do not?
M: According to exorcists there are a variety of ways, including practicing in the occult, a curse, being involved in a satanic ritual, or living a life of hardened sin. However this is not an exact science and even exorcists admit that there is still a lot of mystery involved. The basic fundamental aspect of all these things is that the person has to make a choice to open up a doorway. They have to decide to want to let evil into their life. The way I describe it in the book is that a person takes their focus off of God. It isn’t a one shot deal (you mess around with a Quja board once) nor is there supposedly any predisposed qualities a person has that might open him or herself up. But exorcists admit they don’t have all the answers, which fits in with the Catholic point of view. This is all up to the will of God and presumably he allows it to happen for some purpose, such as turning evil to good.
Q: Based on the dramatic portrayals of exorcisms by Hollywood, do you find that most people are more fearful of exorcisms than they should be? How accurate is Hollywood in their portrayals.
M: I would say on the whole people are more afraid of this topic than should be, but I would chalk that up to fear of the unknown. Most people take the position that if I don’t read about this topic, or think about it, it will go away. If you are a Christian, of course, this doesn’t make sense. According to the teachings of the Catholic Church the devil is already trying to do everything he can to stop people from having a close relationship with God. So if you subscribe to this point of view putting on blinders won’t help. Hollywood tends to focus on the sensational aspects of exorcism and that’s really what most people key into when they watch films. However real-life exorcism is very different.
Q: Exorcism’s seem to be unique to the Catholic Church despite many sects of Christianity believing in evil and the devil. Why do you think this is?
M: Official exorcisms are unique to the Catholic Church simply because other denominations don’t call it exorcism. Just about every organized religion (and even native societies) believes in the ability of evil spirits to attack people and then be cast out through some form of prayer or ritual. So while the Catholic Church has an official ritual that they call exorcism, I would say that the concept of casting out evil spirits is much more popular in other Christian denominations. Of course they don’t call it exorcism, but usually, deliverance. More than anything I think Hollywood has really linked this idea that the Catholic Church is the only game in town when it comes to exorcism. But the reality is that Catholic exorcisms are extremely rare, while other denominations are said to perform them much more frequently.
Q: What's the biggest misconception about exorcism?
M: Probably that the exorcist is out to convince a person suffering from mental illness that their problem is spiritual in nature. In the Catholic Church, the exorcist must work with trained medical professionals including psychiatrists or psychologists. The exorcist is also told to be the ultimate skeptic. So if they are following the protocol of the Catholic Church, then they are screening everyone that comes to see them through trained professionals. Another misconception is that the whole idea of demonic possession is about exculpating people from guilt, which is not the position of the Catholic Church. Certain sins are said to open up a doorway to an evil spirit, but it isn’t that an evil spirit causes those sins.
Q: What do you think of the recent surge of interests in exorcisms given the movie—inspired by your book and also named The Rite—the conferences being held by the Catholic Church, and the forthcoming Discovery Channel reality series?
M: My opinion is that there has always been this interest; it’s just stayed in the places where people were more receptive to it. One of my hopes in writing the book was that people who wouldn’t normally look at the topic would begin to discuss it. So I am happy that more people are becoming aware of it, not because I think people should undergo an exorcism, but because it is a ritual that has remained in the shadows for too long. Though it is also true that we have to be careful in how we go about discussing it. My goal in writing the book was to introduce people to the topic in a way that they had never seen before.