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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. Chris

    Religion is a such a phony hoax. I can't understand why in this day and age people have such deep seated need to believe in the supernatural. I feel sorry for people that still believes there is a god.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Upperhand

      Atheism is such a phony hoax. I can't understand why in this day and age people have such deep seated need to believe no God exists...I feel sorry for people that still believe there is no God. – SMILE

      March 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  2. madnesss

    The catholic church is attempting to stay relevant, and trying to "do what they do best" They'd like to remind people they should be afraid. Good luck with that.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  3. The Doctor

    100 yrs ago all the physicists "knew" that protons, neutrons, and electrons were the smallest particles of matter.
    50 years ago alll the cosmologists "knew" that the expansion of the universe was slowing down.
    25 years ago all the U.S. physicians "knew" that acupuncture was a fake.
    When will the supposidly "enlightened intellectuals" realize that we DON'T know everything? Just because a demon hasn't been videotaped doesn't mean they're not real and active in the world.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
    • Colin

      Simple. The day there is any tangible evidence that (i) the christian devil exists; and (ii) is in the habit of possesssing (exclusively) the mentallyy infirm, it will be enti-tled to be considered like any other scientific explanation.

      Until then, it is not.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  4. Anthony

    Need to send him to Texas and Montana to get the "Hell" out of those two "War Criminals."

    March 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  5. James Quall

    wait.....what year is this again?

    March 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • Colin

      1452. I just came from burning a witch and am about to cut the bushes back from my house so the evil trolls don't get me.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  6. GrogInOhio

    "...and I want to make sure that what we’re dealing with … is satanic or if it is psychological.”

    Here's a thought... perhaps ALL of it is psychological...

    March 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  7. Colin

    This guy is actually probably doing more harm than good to the poor simpletons who are convinced they are possessed, by enabling and reinforcing their obscure, debilitating delusions. Matter of time before one of them (or their relatives) sues him and the church for severe emotional damage.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Debbie

      I think that those that conviced they are possessed, are not so much dulusional as they are lost. People that need to feel as if they are part of something and maybe for once in their lives, be the focus of something. People that might feel empty, alone, and probably have this notion they have no real reason to be or exist. See, if we have none of this, no goals, no aim no anything... nothing to grasp to hold us to the world and be part of it – then we might also feel as if we just need this one thing to belong and fit in. I believe that he can tell the difference – and acts accordingly. So many, to many walk with hearts in contineous pain. And it is deliberating, to see everyone else 'together' – with a true purpose – and you standing on the edge... just watching. We are human after all... You know.. we are still mere children – our existance on this planet but has been only a breath of time compared by the age of the universe. We have much more to explore and discover. No person alive can prove that all things as we know it to be 100% accurate, and stand and say 'we know all', because we do not. Our path is still long, and if you compare the 1960's to now – to today, this even proves how naive we really are about the truths... So many are ready to commit to limit their understanding of all that is – lesson the the scope of what can be. But I feel we know barely can even conceptualize .... what there really is here, and around us.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  8. moderate1234

    "Giving The Devil His Due":
    http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=58835

    March 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  9. jayman419

    but I can see why allowing women to talk might trouble the patriarchs. Also, no sleepovers.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  10. Natsarim

    You do not need a preist to do this or some man made rite. Our Messiah gave us the athourity to do these things. It also helps to know the messiah's real name Yahusha.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  11. The Devil

    I love the catholic church and you better too or you'll join me in hell.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  12. jayman419

    I love it when the automatic moderator uses keywords MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE as reasons to bounce your comment to the queue that time forgot. Way to encourage mature discussion of the topic at hand, guys.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • jayman419

      wicca

      March 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • jayman419

      is not

      March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • jayman419

      satanism

      March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  13. m

    Lets get this guy to visit Charlie Sheen like ASAP!!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  14. Colin

    The good thing about such Dark Ages nonsense still existing is it makes it easier for we atheists to show what a croc religion actually is.

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

      Be joyous.... in your beliefs....
      Sing out and celebrate what your heart knows and your soul feels...

      We cannot hold love, but we know it exists... you can only prove that you are loved or that you love through emotions, through faith... We know love knows no distance, no boundries, no limitations – yet again, this is something we cannot prove... We can only say that love does indeed exist, and people will naysay – 'it is passion, it is fleeting emotion, it is empty'... we still will hold it close to us, see it for what it is... and feel it within our hearts and souls... and this emotion we cannot hold or see – is what makes us everything so worth while in life. So why is it so difficult for some to believe in more....

      March 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Upperhand

      So says the atheist with faith to believe no God exists...riiiight!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Upperhand

      Atheism is such a phony hoax. I can't understand why in this day and age people have such deep seated need to believe no God exists...I feel sorry for people that still believe there is no God.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  15. Double B

    If you focus on "a devil"...evil is what you will get. If you focus on "good", good is what you will get. Pretty simple.
    Why waste time & ink perpetuating ancient religious ceremonies intended as "opiates" for the masses. There is no devil any more than there is a white bearded, male, strict, God. Wake up! you could be having so much more joy in your lives.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  16. Not Unique

    It is very important to keep in mind that though exorcism has validity this story does not lend credence to any specific faith. Exorcism has been practiced world wide with meaningful results in a varoety of faiths. Christianity seems be hot as far as that goes. But Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, vodoun, all have rites of exorcism that are as effective as this which suggests that the reason they are effective is not necessarily for the reasons the church belives.
    George Fear

    March 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  17. Jim

    The lord just told me that anybody that thinks they are closer to him than me is possessed by the devil.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Upperhand

      Surrrre he did, riiiiight!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Pazuzu

      MMMMMEEEEERRRRRIIIINNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  18. Rich

    Religion kills

    March 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Upperhand

      You're an idiot!!! Religion doesn't kill...people do!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Drew

      As does science! Atom bomb, anyone?

      March 9, 2011 at 3:40 am |
  19. qurgh

    Another loony on the frontpage of CNN. Yesterday it was crazy people who think the world is going to end in a couple of months and today it's a guy who thinks the "devil" gets "inside" people and he has to "cast" them out. When is the world going to start seeing these people for what they really are?

    When I was a kid I tried to summon the devil on many occasions, but he never showed up. Shouldn't I have been a prime candidate for possession? Why is it only people who follow God (and should be protected by him because they are believers) who get possessed? Does Satan not care about all the non-religious people or non-Christians who would be easy to take over? No, he only goes for religious nuts, which to me simply says that he's made up by these religious nuts.

    People who are possessed are no different than people who think they are abducted by aliens or believe they are the reincarnation of Jesus. Just plain crazy.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Colin

      Couldn't agree more.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Hope

      No, actually, Satan does not care about the non-believers. Why should he – he already has you!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Art W

      gurgh: "When I was a kid I tried to summon the devil on many occasions, but he never showed up."

      How do you know? Maybe he did . . .

      March 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • LouAz

      When I first read your entry I mistakenly thought you said SANTA. Makes sense either way . . .

      March 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • One True God

      The devil doesn't have to go after those who already follow him. He's already won your soul.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  20. Jim P.

    "“Demons are always looking for human beings who have broken relationships.”"

    You really have to wonder why a loving "god" went to all that trouble to create such monstrosities. Rather like a parent delibarately letting scorpions and plague ticks loose in their infant's bedroom.

    But then when you look at other "divine" creations like hookworm, filarial worms, sarcoptic mange (tiny athropods that burrow beneath you skin and live there, eating you and reproduce until you literally scratch yourself to death and so on, it stands to reason he would also throw in a few spiritual boogeymen to torment those whom he "loves".

    Must be a very sadistic sort of love to have done all that delibarately.

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

      Right. I know god does not exist because why would he want us to kill animals for food.? Why couldn't he make us eat soil and not have to kill animals?

      March 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Upperhand

      Read the bible and find out...the answer you seek is in there. The Christian walk is a personal one, it doesn't matter what anyone else says or thinks about what God should be, what matters most is that you make it a personal walk.Only then will one start to understand.

      Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding, If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, And find the knowledge of God. – Proverbs 2:3-5

      March 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Upperhand

      What doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul. – Deuteronomy 10:12

      "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil to give you an expected end.

      Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you.

      And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.

      And I will be found of you, saith the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.- Jeremiah 29:11-13

      What doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul. – Deuteronomy 10:12

      O LORD, You are my God; I will exalt You, I will give thanks to Your name; For You have worked wonders, Plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness.- Isaiah 25:1

      Your loving-kindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; Your judgments are like a great deep. O LORD, You preserve man and beast. How precious is Your loving-kindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.- Psalms 36:5-7

      March 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • pat carr

      Upperhand ther'es a lot more to the bible that i can put on here, shall I? How about the story of 42 children eaten by bears because they made fun of a bald "prophet"? The christian walk is a stumbling block to a real happy life free of bronze age cult doctrines

      March 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
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About this blog

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.