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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. Servant of G*d

    aethists are walking sleeping men they havent awakened to the conscience of the Earth,

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

      You couldn't be more wrong. We did WAKE UP. It's you are are still in a delusional coma.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • InFaMoUsLy_AgNoStIc

      Do we NEED to believe in a God?

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

    one thing i dont like about believers is how they "KNOW". Really?... so you KNOW i will be reincarnated??... you KNOW that Jesus Christ was a deity, not a mere mortal? Well... how do you KNOW?

    March 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • george in texas

      christianity is one big con game. all you have to do is read up what passes for a book, memorize a good part of it, and unleash it on people with low iq, and, voila, make wads of tax free money.
      now, for the republicans it means votes, which, pays even huger dividends, money _and_ power. low iq must be made to be crime when you see the ease with which they are preyed on by the unscrupulous people in white robes.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  3. george in texas

    "the rite", vatican sponsored missionary commercial. would this movie be a freeby just like the bibles that vatican passes out? some say vatican will pay you to watch if you leave your brains behind at home.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  4. Servant of G*d

    Oh my Amen I am your servant Oh my Lord my brother Jesus I am what I am thy trinity!!!! ahhh the power of the cosmos!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  5. Jordan N.

    I find it disturbing that so many believe such nonsense. I'm also curious who so many Christian religious experts believe the devil has any power, given that God supposedly condemned him to hell as punishment, not to become lord over a domain and a rival to God. Seems to sidestep the whole issue of all evil stemming from God (he was the father of ALL creation after all, and chose to condemn those angels who rebelled and turn them into demons, and if he is an infinite being, then he as infinitely evil as much as he is infinitely good). Thank God that He and Satan don't seem to have much interest in atheists.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  6. solrac503

    CNN IS A JOKE!!!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  7. Giant1

    This guy's life and profession are so tied into this stuff that even if he no longer believed it, he would almost certainly not have the curage to admit it!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  8. EddyL

    HOGWASH.... The Catholic Church will do or say anything to keep the ignorant paying in their pennies.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  9. solrac503

    This makes headlines and, meanwhile, Wisconsin gets nothing????? How is ANYONE taking CNN seriously...and to think, CNN is 10 times better compared to FOX. No wonder USA has tons of misinformed, brainwashed drones.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  10. Matthew

    Really?? This is your lead story??? The Middle East is burning, and you're leading with ghost stories. Unbelievable.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Right On

      They continue to make Al Jazeera look good!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • solrac503

      Yes, if anyone wants real news you need to go to Al Jaeera. CNN is a good place to be entertained and to see the opinions of the outer crust of meek Americans.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  11. Tequila

    Tequila

    Where are all the Catholic defenders? Oh, and whats her name...CatholicMom? I thought she would have some commenting to do about this, since its the Catholic Church

    March 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  12. veronica

    @Ruck

    It is both theoratically and physically possible. See stem-cell research. Guess that makes the scientists the real gods here, huh?

    Than why have they not done it yet???????? And I believe in science and God but science is not God

    March 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Stunned

      veronica,

      Why have they not done it yet? Because "God" (or more precisely, the believers) are holding them back by blocking stem cell research.

      If "God" would "just do it", there would be no need, however.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  13. GEORGE corriere

    TRYING TO SCARE PEOPLE TO STAY WITH THE CHURCH. THEY WOULD DO OR SAY ANYTHING TO KEEP THE MONEY COMING . THE CHURCH IS THE REAL EVIL.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  14. Tequila

    Where are all the Catholic defenders? Oh, and whats her name...CatholicMom? I thought she would have some commenting to do about this, since its the Catholic Church

    March 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  15. DrDroid

    It's hard to believe these insane beliefs in devils and exorcism persist in this day and age. People like Gary Thomas are modern day witch doctors driving SUVs and talking on cell phones, but they're still witch doctors.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  16. rich

    Meet America’s top exorcist; I guess he can dispel the imaginary boogie man better than all others.

    Meet America’s top exorcist

    March 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  17. george in texas

    it's a hard sell by vatican that finds itself slowly going bankrupt as sucker count drops further and further .

    March 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  18. billy

    @ paulie. yeah, that's hilarious.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  19. Don't buy it

    I don't believe there is a devil. The devil was a creation by some guy who wrote the bible to control others through fear. And boy, doesn't fear make a lot of money!

    March 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • GMAN

      HOW TRUE!!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Enoch_knows_whos_names_are_written

      Definition of Occult: oc·cult (-klt, klt)
      adj.

      1. Hidden; concealed.
      2. Detectable only by microscopic examination or chemical analysis.
      3. Not accompanied by readily detectable signs or symptoms.

      Nephilim would rather you didn't see them.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Giancarlo

      Well, fortunately or unfortunately, the existance of God and the devil don't depend on your belief.

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

    Every non-Hollywood case of "possession" (that has been objectively observed or recorded) is indistinguishable from psychosis. Possession is a real phenomenon, but it is psychological, not supernatural.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • Paulie

      The Devil is Real!!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • raelalt

      Paulie: "The Devil is Real!"
      .
      Then he certainly needs a better PR agent!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:16 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.