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March 7th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Meet America's top exorcist, the inspiration for 'The Rite'

Editor's Note: This story comes from a new CNN Special, "Stories Reporter," with Tom Foreman which features an in-depth look at the news of the day.

By Tom Foreman, CNN

The sun was shining on the Santa Cruz Mountains. The freeway from the San Francisco airport to San Jose was still buzzing in my ears when I stepped into the parking lot of an unassuming church and the most famous exorcist in America walked up.

“Hello, I’m Father Gary Thomas.”  At 57 years old, he has an easy smile, an abiding love for the Giants and strong convictions about the nature of evil.

"You believe there is a devil?"  I ask him as we settle in at a small, beautiful chapel near the church.

“Yes.”

“You believe that this devil acts upon people?”

“Correct.”

He says it with the certainty that I reserve for answers to questions like, “Did you bring your lunch?” but that’s no surprise.  He has faced skeptics many times and never more than now, because his life and training as an exorcist in Rome are the inspiration behind the Hollywood film "The Rite."

Father Gary Thomas at the premier of 'The Rite'

Indeed, at the premiere, as the cameras swirled around the star, Anthony Hopkins, Thomas walked the red carpet alongside him.  This movie, like salvation, is something the priest believes in.

“First of all,” he says, “it was very emotional for me.  I found some of those scenes very riveting.  I found some of them very profound.  They’re very accurate.  That’s what I’ve seen in real life.”

That’s saying something.  "The Rite" is chock-full of heaving, cursing, ranting characters, who, according to the screenplay, are possessed by Satan, people who one moment seem fine and the next are raging against all that is holy.

And yet, Thomas says people who fear that very fate come to him constantly.  “Well, often times they’ll begin the conversation with ‘Father, I need an exorcism.’  And my answer back to them is, ‘I don’t do them on demand.’”

But he does think a lot more of them need to be done.  It is all part of a push by the Vatican to make more exorcists available to the faithful.  Some in the Catholic Church believe the world is facing a rising tide of demonic activity, particularly in America, where millions are moving away from traditional faiths and looking for alternatives.

"A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …"

A vision of politician Christine O’Donnell fills my head and I interrupt.  “But a lot of people would tell you up front, ‘I’m just playing around.’”

“Right.  Absolutely.  And it’s not,” he says, noting that those who feel adrift from the church and from others of faith are more likely to be drawn in.  “Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”

Simply put, Thomas believes just as surely as a person can summon God through prayer, through other rituals, the devil can be called, too.

Father Thomas, left, and Tom Foreman

Thomas says an exorcism usually takes from 45 minutes to two hours and involves reciting prayers, reading scriptures and using sacramental objects such as crucifixes and holy water.  Of course, that’s like saying surgery involves a knife and some sponges.

It is vastly more complicated.  Before the rite is even considered, there must be psychological testing by professionals, extended consultations and questions about drug and alcohol addiction.

Thomas says fully 80% of the people he meets claiming demonic possession have actually suffered some kind of abuse.  An exorcism, he says, is the last step in a long process.

“I have a particular situation now,” he says, “where I think this particular person is suffering from a very unique psychological disorder, but she’s also been exposed to satanic cults, and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

Even when an exorcism is prescribed, it often must be repeated.  Judging from Thomas' comments, it takes something of a trained eye to decide whether it is even working.

Father Thomas and Anthony Hopkins at the premier of 'The Rite.'

The movie, to be frank, complicates this whole discussion.  Not "The Rite."  Thomas says he likes that one, and found Anthony Hopkins a “delightful” man.

But rather the movie from 1973.  "The Exorcist" captured America's imagination about demons taking over a person’s body and profoundly shaped the public's perceptions about the process of throwing those devils out.  It was lurid, violent and unforgettable.

It was also based on a real exorcism in Washington, which was far less dramatic than the film.  Thomas will tell you emphatically there are no spinning heads, spewing pea soup or levitating bodies.

But he has seen manifestations of possession.  "Sometimes the person's head will begin to move in very rigid ways.  Sometimes their eyes will roll.  Sometimes there will be epileptic-like seizures," Thomas said.  "Occasionally people will take on kind of a body language of a serpentine look, and they'll begin to stick their tongue out and use their tongue in ways that would look snake-like, and they'll coil up in a snake-like position."

“And these are things that you have seen in real life?” I ask.

"I have seen that," he said with a wry smile.

I’ve seen it, too.  A few years ago I went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to report on a Protestant exorcist who was holding a session in a hotel meeting room.  Several dozen people filed in while, no kidding, "The Devil Inside" by INXS played on a stereo system.

Suffice to say, there were plenty of eye-rolling, seizure-like eruptions in the crowd as people cried out and the exorcist confronted them, pressing his Bible against their heads, and demanding that their demons reveal their names.

We talked to some of the participants before and after, talked to the exorcist, too. For all their heartfelt expressions of belief, I can’t help but ask Thomas the same thing I asked that night: Couldn’t all these folks just be acting?

"I don't think they're acting out in a conscious sense,” he says, “because many times … they don't remember the experience itself.”

What’s more, he says, occasionally the person will do something that defies explanation.  "Sometimes the person will begin to speak in a language in which they have no competency in.”

Meaning, for example, someone who knows no German might start speaking precisely and accurately in that language.  Thomas says he has witnessed that, too.

I stopped by the Pew Center in Washington, where some of the best research on religion is done, to ask about all this.  Allison Pond is a charming young researcher who kindly sat me down before delivering some startling news: A Pew survey found more than one in 10 Americans have witnessed an exorcism, and when you narrow it down to Pentecostals it’s about one in three.

“Forty percent of Americans said they completely believe angels and demons are active in the world,” she told me, “with 28% telling us they mostly believe this."

That is the kind of information that needs more than a priestly explanation, so I roamed over to Georgetown University to talk to Ori Soltes, a theologian.  The problem, he says, is that we can’t know for sure what people mean when they say they’ve seen an exorcism.  Was it a formal ceremony?  A personal revelation?  A changed way of life?

Still, he has no doubt that claims of demonic meddling are high, because, after all, the year 2000 rolled around less than a dozen years ago, and at every millennium fears of the devil’s influence rise.

"My sense is that we are still in the backwash from the millennium,” he says, “but then you know ... events have helped to proliferate that:  9/11,  the war in Iraq.  And now as we approach 2012, suddenly everyone is very interested in the Mayan calendar and how we interpret the idea that the apocalypse is coming in December of 2012 at the time of equinox ... all that sort of stuff.”

So maybe it’s no wonder that Thomas is getting calls for exorcisms from not only Catholics, but also from followers of other faiths.

"How often?" I ask.

"I would say probably one out of 10."

Thomas says there are about 50 Catholic exorcists in the United States, and that’s not nearly enough.  He’d like to see one exorcist in every parish.  But until that day, he does not mind explaining over and over what exorcisms are really all about.

“It's a healing ministry.  It's not hocus pocus.  It's not smoke and mirrors.  It's not magic. But I think if we don't respond to people who come in their very troubling moments, I think it diminishes us as a church."

Despite all that Hollywood has done to mythologize exorcisms, he still believes in the power of this rite, a power born not of fear, but of faith.

CNN's Eric Marrapodi and Katie Ross contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Devil • Mass • Movies • Vatican

soundoff (1,247 Responses)
  1. LouAz

    Are we also going to get 'legitimate' stories about VooDoo Witch Doctors, and certain Sun God practices, and the full gamut of man's belief in the supernatural, or just good Christian coverage of this brand of NONSENSE ?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • felice

      Pretty sure we get Islam in the news everyday (radical islam so that should please you)... there was story on here about buddhism not too long ago... if that's not enough, why not do some research and write an article and turn it in to CNN. Maybe you'll get famous.
      P.S.- 95% of the world believes in NONSENSE with a good portion believing in this brand itself. If you want a society free of religion, go live in China where the government gets to decide who your religious leader will be (i.e.-the dalai lama's successor) and regulates the internet so that should a religion get too caught up in itself, the website used to portray this message is immediately shut down.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • felice

      oh and they don't ONLY regulate religious beliefs

      March 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  2. Ryan

    What the Church won't tell you is that if you don't believe in any of this stuff then it won't happen to you. It's all about your belief system. If you believe in angels and demons and that they can possess you then you can be possessed. If you don't believe it then it simply cannot happen to you. You will not experience that in which you do not believe. It's that simple 🙂

    March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  3. Nancy M. B.

    I tend to disbelieve the devil and the need for exorcisms. However, there are so many things in life we do not understand that I would like to keep an open mind - a little bit of me believing that evil might, just might, exist in the form of a being such as the devil. We humans are smart but we don't know everything.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  4. Jack

    Educate yourself about the catholic church. They have historically not cooperated with prosecutors in the US in prosecutions of priests that have abused children, including the pope himself. They cover up information that would help in the prosecution. They are all guilty by associating with an organization that has covered up child abuse. Is it ok to cover up child abuse if you wear a silly looking robe and funny looking hat thing?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • YBP

      And a white band of cardboard around your neck.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • I. Ronic

      Actually the white band is either starched linen (the Posh Collar) or plastic (the Knock Off Collar).

      March 7, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  5. cira22

    I AM PAGAN...WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW.... THAT I FOLLOW THE GODDESS (NOT THE DEVIL) 'CAUSE SHE ROCK'S MY SOUL!!.....DON'T NEED YOUR BIBLES...I GOT THE WISDOM OF THE CRONE...DON'T NEED YOUR HEAVEN...INTO THIS LIFE I'M REBORN...NO 10 COMMANDMENTS, ONE FITS THE BILL, "AN IT HARM NONE, DO WHAT YOU WILL!!"

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  6. John Smith

    (Matthew 7:22-23) . . .Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?’ 23 And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew YOU! Get away from me, YOU workers of lawlessness.

    Find out what the will of God really is... It is to teach people about God's Kingdom, period.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  7. Nick

    There are only two things that do not evolve in life that I am aware of, tradition and religion. Both are forms of enhanced myth, the main difference is that tradition allows us to commemorate, whereas religion aspires to control the masses, the land deeds, and influence in governments. Exorcism will die when religion dies, which is something I doubt I will witness in my lifetime.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • YBP

      Sad but true. Profoundly true.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  8. Azâzêl

    I always get blamed for everything you know. For once at least, why can't you people realize that if it was your god that made you in his image, and with there apparently being all of this supposed evil happening in the world, all of which is perpetuated by human beings upon other humans with little encouragement by the way, then this evil can only come from an original and delightful failing that was placed within you while you were being made in the image of god. In essence, the original image that you were cast from contains the defect that is reproduced with every birth. Lord knows how much I'd love to claim even a share of the patent on such inspired malevolence, but alas it wasn't me that created you.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  9. MK

    Why is that all those who have ridiculed Christian beliefs as absurd have nothing whatsoever to say about the doctrines and beliefs of Islam. Please, someone explain the hypocrisy.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • JohnR

      Those doctrines and beliefs are nonsense, too. Happy?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • YBP

      I think it's the worst of the Big Three. It started out very badly in the Ancient Middle East and just got progressively worse. Look into the history of it. It's all there in black and white. And I don't mean the "holy" scriptures!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  10. cira22

    I AM PAGAN...AN I'M PROUD!! I AM PAGAN....GONNA SHOUT IT LOUD!!!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  11. Brian Sorcic

    Quit your crap talk, if you are so smart you would get rid of those devil predatory paedophiles right here on earth several years ago, instead you are talking crap about a non existant devil made up foir your own good . ...
    C'mon quit being a lair and get down to business with those who really hurt the worlds children. Those predatory paedophile
    Catholic PRIESTS themself. Go chase them !!!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • JohnR

      Amen!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • YBP

      Bravo!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  12. cira22

    " People can get themselves involved in Wicca," OH NO!! Not WICCA!! THE HORROR!!! A nature loving religion that celebrates the seasonsis NOT DEMONIC!! geez!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Karloff

      Not demonic, but just as delusional.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • cira22

      'Tis cool Karloff, I don't mind being thought of delusional (I love lots of atheist friends that think I am delusional because I am Wiccan LOL) BUT I don't like being told i worship Demonic forces, and that my religious choice is evil.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  13. The Devil

    Luis Wu

    Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own
    father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and
    telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove
    an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a
    rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
    Otherwise you'll be tortured forever by an invisible red guy with horns.

    How do you like your fire? Hot or hotter? Your stench is bad now, but waith till that rotten meat starts to sizzle, then you'lll wish the hell you had never said those words.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • YBP

      I don't know what is more deluded, the first part of this post, or the second. I'm thinking the second.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Sally

      WOW! YOU are condemning him to Hell? I thought that only God could do that!!! I thought that condemning others or judging them was a sin that was bound to condemn YOU to Hell.

      Ten bucks says you beat him there. (I'm not a Christian so I get to judge all I want, fun huh?)

      March 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  14. YBP

    Shame on CNN for even considering such a story. This is not news. It's not even real life.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • felice

      yeah... heaven forbid they should practice unbiased journalism by reporting on any opinion or belief that contradicts your own.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • LouAz

      This "article" belongs in the ENTERTAINMENT Section.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  15. biblosity

    I am very glad a serious and kind article like this was written. It is refreshing to have someone who is honest and caring and genuinely helping people with his faith in Jesus Christ... not vilified.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • YBP

      I vilify him. He's a huckster. And he is fully aware of what he is doing to deceive people to earn their trust and their money. It's his profession. You should take a backstage tour of the church. I lived there for two years. I couldn't even imagine the politics, the mindgames, the perversion, the abuse and the wholesale arrogance of the clergy. Not to mention the mythology being passed off as real-life and real history. I ran away in the middle of the night!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • biblosity

      Neither of us really know him do we. I was just glad to read an article where a faithful person was not hatefully prejudged for a change.
      There is no doubt that there can be groups of people who are within the church who profess faith and are not faithful and don't belong to Jesus Christ. They can play terrible mind games and be very hurtful. In fact the church can be a great place for these people to hide. But it is irresponsible to stop there. The whole church cannot be painted with the same brush. One must look for oneself and determine what it actually true.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  16. Matt

    I was in a church youth service of about 50 teenagers one night when an unknown man of God from Nicaragua came to minister. This man had great authority over demons. So much so that (after preaching a short sermon about Jesus) he simply prayed that God would send the fire of His Spirit into the room. The moment he started praying, about 10-15 of the teenagers started manifesting Demons (screaming, cursing God, rolling on the ground like snakes, etc). A few hours later, all the teenagers were set free from the demons they had allowed into their lives. Many of them confessed to dabbling in the occult and other sins.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Sally

      I had the same thing happen to me in a church youth group!

      Several years later, I was having lunch with three of those (then adults). They ALL confessed to me that they had been approached beforehand by the regular youth pastor, solicited to "become overpowered by demons", and sworn to secrecy as it would provide a lesson about what actually happens during demonic possession and strengthen the faith of us other unwitting children.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Matt

      The devil is a liar. There was no such collusion or conspiracy this night. Lives were changed and oppressed people were set free by the power of God through the power of His Holy Spirit.

      March 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  17. richunix

    I do not believe in some (God like) being that forces anyone to do evil deeds. Evil is, what evil men do themselves.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  18. Darwin

    The BIBLE has several references to WITCHES. Does this priest also believe in witches? Could Sarah Palin be a witch? When you reject scientific rationalism for religious fantasies, ANYTHING is possible!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • richunix

      Yup and better than that! "The Devil made me do it". I couldn't agree more with your comment.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  19. Marichuy

    Demons can come in someone because of different reasons: sins of your's ancestors, your sins, someone cursed you and other reasons... If you suspect because you suddenly have afeeling that you do all things wrong, you can't be close to a holy things and other signs start to pray even if you feel like you can't and don't be timorous.. ask the prayer from church, from the groups of people who pray... salvation will come sooner or later...

    March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • richunix

      Have you seen Elvis yet and guess what, I saw Jesus in a potato chip..Lay's I believe. Look me up, have some swamp land in Florida to sell you ...as you believe in littel green men and things that go bump in the night.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Marichuy

      @richunix
      Read the book from Gabriel Amorth, watch on Youtube film about Marthe Robin and after that we can talk about swamp land.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  20. RepubtardWarrior

    Someone needs to exercise the demons from the Repubtard/Tea Bagger members.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Karloff

      A comment from the uneducated left.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • jbass

      So profound, fresh, and funny. You should do standup comedy.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Rich Perry

      Another example of the church trying to gain back control of its wayward population by using fear tactics. I wonder if the Vatican will commission any royalties from the movie. There are weak people, dumb people and nasty people none of which the church can do anything about except perhaps brainwashing from birth. Maybe they should focus on trying to exercise the demons within the priesthood, lord knows, a lot of poor children would agree.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • CB

      Irrelevant, much?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.