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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. OvernOut

    Current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts has had seizures. He, as well as the other three million Americans who are living with seizure disorders (epilepsy) do not need this.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      There are many that might be persuaded that there is more than epilepsy and demonic influence which explain the $upreme Court's behavior.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  2. Seenen

    I think Rush Limbaugh could use his services. I've seen him flailing his arms around and spitting while shouting incoherently.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      I believe that's called Show Biz.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  3. Art

    "Faith" is believing what you know to be untrue.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      Most people blow their snotty noses into a Kleenex. We see you doing it with your computer. Either way it isn't cute.

      Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  4. Philip L

    I once saw an exorcism performed on a Sasquatch while on board a UFO. Elvis and Jackie O helped out.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Elvis

      I remember that; I was all shook up.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • raelalt

      Elvis is everywhere, Phil. Come join the Church of Elvis and have all yer sins forgiven. And you might get lucky and pick up a few new ones.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  5. pat carr

    The devil of the bible is actually much less harmful and evil than "jehovah" was. Did the devil flood nearly the entire world? Did the devil destroy entire cities? did the devil kill a man because he "spilt his seed on the ground" (onan). And on and on. If anything should be cast out, it is belief in the biblical god which is evil beyond ability to describe.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Servant of G*d

      GOD FLOODED THE WORLD BECAUSE ZUES AKA SATAN is a ufo and they were here and tricked us humans into believeing they are greater than us, for now we know the truth I shall burn all of zues fleet by myself just watch my God is above orion and beyond life and everything; he is Powerful.... zues i shall eat you are all your fleet for breakfast, traitor stranger of mother earth, .............Roar...................................................................!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • raelalt

      Yeah, but then he found religion and got all righteous 'n stuff, and had a new book commissioned.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      Did your father satan teach you those words?

      The will to call good evil and evil good is that which comes from demonic influence – or mental incapacity.

      If there is no God, then you need to see a doctor.
      If there is a devil, then you need to ask God for help.
      Either way you have revealed yourself as one unbalanced.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  6. Servant of G*d

    screw the void Im taking my planet earth back with LOVE!!!!Roar11111111111!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  7. ArubianNights

    Want to know what Catholicism says about this:

    http://www.stmichael.pair.com/laitydeliverance.html

    HOW DO EVIL SPIRITS ENTER US?

    Evil spirits enter us through many ways as indicated in the examples below.

    Innocent Victim :

    In some cases, evil spirits enter an innocent victim. The victim may be an unborn baby who is cu-rsed from the mother's womb. The cu-rse can be from a jealous relative, friend, enemy, or even the child's own parents.

    Innocent victims may also include children who are not loved, who are mistreated or ab-used or rejection by other children, siblings, parents, etc. The abuse can range from se-xual abuse, mental abu-se, or physical ab-use.

    Those who Choose Evil:

    In other cases, an evil spirit may enter us because of involvement in evil practices such as the occult, The occult is any practice that involves ceremonies, rituals, chants, magic, or activities that are obviously not God centered. These activities or rituals can change the course of nature, the the lives of those who are involved in such practices, and of course, the innocent victims.

    •The Ouija board is a popular occult board game and there is also Dungeons and Dragons. Satan's main target in Dungeons and Dragons game is our youth. With Dungeons and Dragons, the most powerful and successful players are those who use magic. There is a Dungeons Master Guide that even teaches new beginners how to communicate with the dead, cast spells, and learn to chant.
    •The use of magic revolves around evil spirits, psychic abilities and contacting spirits. Magic is a power that does not involve God. It is a power that is derived from such things as voodoo, sorcery, primitive religions and Satanism. Most witches who use magic swear that they do not worship Satan but wo-rship the gods and goddesses of nature (The gods and goddesses of nature are hardly Jesus Christ! Of course they worship Satan! Do not let someone who practices this occ-ult tell you otherwise!). Many of these individuals are unknown because they blend in quite well. They can be found attending church services in every denomination and they practice their magic on the side. If someone tells you white magic is ok–don't believe them!!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Servant of G*d

      God all mightY gives his people Magic only to counter the devil and to scorch with great heat, dont forget the devil is nothing he is getting what he dererves God all mighty is the King of Magic, for everything is energy. THROUGH JESUS CHRIST ALL SHALL KNOW AMEN HIS FATHER..............................AMEN....

      March 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Justin

      Show me a verse in the Bible that says unborn babies are possessed! We gotta get back to getting our spiritual advice from the word of God, not just a writing that has no verses to back up the claims

      March 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Chris

    That's the beauty of the devil. He works well off of people's disbelief in him.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Tom

      Well then he must be more powerful then ever....... no one believes in him. That's awesome, the less people beleive in you, the more powerful you become. I love it! If that were the case, he's be sitting having lunch with me right now, since no one could possibly believe less than me.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      The devil is most pleased with those who either pay it too much attention or too little.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  9. IronRider

    It was when man ate from the tree of knowlege and realized they were naked in the garden. From our very exsistance we have been courious creatures. Dispite what you know or think you know, this is very real.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Um...

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

    So...when they say they don't remember...could they not also be...um...acting?

    March 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      When they say they don't remember......they probably don't remember. Not all victims are liars and not all who fancy themselves to be clever are wise.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  11. Josie Behnke

    "The Greatest trick of the devil was making people believe he is no longer there"...can't remember where I heard that, but it's the truth. Sorry, but after personal experiences (not all pleasant) I do believe in Satan and I do believe in God...and yes people I am very scientific as well. Be careful of what you say and attack before you assume that all religious people are stupid and have no education or understanding of things like science!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • David

      It's from The Usual Suspects.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      C.S. Lewis said that.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • The Devil Incarnate

      I believe the quote is from "The Screwtape Letters" by CS Lewis.

      Oh, and.....BOO!

      March 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  12. Joe - Providence

    I didn't know the extent of the decline our society (not just us American’s but from all over – from what I see) it’s not Satan or some goofy anti-Christ whatnot – it’s “normal” people. No one cares what I believe (except religious nuts) but here you go. Religion as a real tangible thing is a myth (there is no god or heaven, devils or hell) but the message is valid and real. Filter out the mushy junk about miracles or deifying a person and focus on the message and you got something good you can use in your tool bob of life. Take the parts that make sense to you without question like Honor your parents or love thy neighbor and apply them to your everyday life and truly the world would be a better place. Great weapon stupid delivery system.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Joe - Providence

      Yes I see my typo's but I was hoping you'd turn the other cheek.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Justin

      Humanism doesn’t get you to Heaven, only a relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Unbelief and lack of faith in people should not void out the miracles of God. It is sad because God never wanted people to end up in eternal torture but people will choose to go against God and live life there own way. Jesus himself prophesied this.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      Only Jesus Christ can save HERE and NOW.
      Judging from the religious bigotry and ignorant hatred published here I would say that a lot of folks need Jesus' help right NOW.
      Pie in the sky bye and bye? All the mushy pie filling isn't in the heads of religious people. Not by a long shot.
      Seek Christ now with a humble heart and He will answer you and give you something solid to stand on and think about.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • pat carr

      "Judging from the religious bigotry and ignorant hatred published here I would say that a lot of folks need Jesus' help right NOW."

      yes religious bigotry and hatred are part of christianity. how does your "religion" feel about other belief systems? it claims they are going to hell too. what a disgusting doctrine

      March 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  13. Justin Observation

    He should exercise the priests, out of little boys.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  14. micmorri

    All religions are fairy tales taken way out of context. There is no god of any kind. Jesus was just the Houdini of the ancient world performing miraculous-like magic tricks, not the messiah. Muhammad was just a merchant/warlord that saw an opportunity to gather an army by claiming he was receiving messages from god, just so he could conquer the middleast. Believing in these fairy tails is like believing Zeus is the god of gods, or that Odin is the chief god of the norse, or any other old story that was once believed to be true. Stop kidding yourselves! There is no god. When we die we rot and return the organic materials of our being to be used by other organisms of earth. There is no such thing as a soul. When we die the lights are out, thats it, no heaven, hell, or purgatory, or anything else that might lure you into believing this load of bull****

    March 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Terry

    It is amazing to me that someone writing an article this long on catholic exorcisms could do so without once mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, or somehow making a connection with his ministry and the priest's

    March 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  16. Servant of G*d

    Once someone connects to mother Earth and accepts Lord Jesus CHrist, he will feel peace and Love and will all of a sudden feel for others, and animals, Lord Jesus CHrist is a beautiful feeling but dont get me wrong, Love is not weak, in fact Love destroys satan and all his traitors,

    March 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Colin

      You have really been gulping on that kool-aid, haven't you.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  17. Richard Hessler

    Interesting that he singles out Wicca as something that predisposes to demonic possession. Why not Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or any other faith which these inventors of Satan do not agree? I bet CNN would not have printed that, although it is ironic that since Wiccans do not accept even the possibility of Satan they are somewhat less likely to be "possessed".

    March 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      He focused on Wicca as an example.

      The other religions you mentioned all have severe demonic influence upon their adherents, including the most famous one from the middle east. In that religion, the verses of their holiest book were passed to the human founder by a demon – at the leaders' own admission.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  18. Justin

    I have cast out devils and here is one of the biblical verses backing up Christians and the ability to do this. Mark 16:16-18. "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

    Jesus himself said and commanded that of His followers. This has always been going on but now people outside the Church are starting to pay attention to it. Not to mention much of the "Church" that has looked past those verses

    In Christ Alone,

    Justin

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

      So Justin, whilst not casting out devils, have you considered seeing a therapist. Just curious, you know.. Just seems a little odd that you have the power to expel deamons back to the firey pit of hell.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • PulTab

      you need mental health attention justin!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Justin

      If you look into it. The demons will actually not be cast into hell but into dry places.. Meaning "Not in the body of a person" Jesus gave athority to believers to do this. He did not give authority to cast anything into Hell. "The Pit" and lake of Fire which is after the End of Time as we know it is where Jesus himself will Cast the devil and demons..

      I am a student currently studying for a degree in theology and also going into the ministry... I am not ignorant crazy who sits on the computer and does my research...... I actually am educated on this

      March 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  19. OvernOut

    This whole thing is so unfair to persons who actually do have epilepsy, like my teen. It just happens that we are also Catholic, and we have the full backing of the Church in seeking help for our child from a neurologist–not a priest–for our child's disability.

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

      He was not targeting epileptics. He was merely making a reference to the tremors of one the possessed and how they are similar to that of an epileptic fit or shaking. He did not say “All epileptics are possessed” , though some could be. We cannot write everything off as just a sickness these days. No I am not saying your son is possessed..

      March 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      There are people with medical problems and there are people with spiritual problems. There are also people who are so intoxicated with their own cleverness that no one can teach them wisdom. These ignorant wretches provide fertile grounds for demonic influence.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Skound

      Don't understand what's unfair to your teen. I don't think anyone was saying that people with epilepsy are demonically possessed. I hope and pray, however, for a full recovery for your child.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  20. Free Thinker

    Outside of entertainment value, people don't really buy into this devil exorcism stuff, do they? C'mon people, use just a little logic and reason here. There's no solid evidence that there's a god, just as there is no evidence that there is a devil. But like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, they make great folk stories.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Servant of G*d

      Free thinker I believe you are the void!!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Teresa

      Actually there is evidence, you are just to blind to see it, the bible.has predicted everything from holocaust, to blacks becoming the slaves of the world and gives you identifiers, it tells you about the world being round orbiting in space, this was written way before man could rationalize and you say their is not a God

      March 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Justin

      your comment is screaming out .. "I am ignorant" either that or your sources are very very poor and you need to find some new ones!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Tampa Man

      "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God." Psalm 53:1 The devil welcomes your disbelief, the better to work its way with you.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Tron

      There was no evidence that the earth was round or that evolution existed either, until someone saw it. The evidence can be right in front of you but if you dont accept it, or have the knowledge to understand it, you'll never see it.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • PulTab

      i agree with you 100% free thinker!

      March 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • pat carr

      Actually there is evidence, you are just to blind to see it, the bible.has predicted everything from holocaust, to blacks becoming the slaves of the world and gives you identifiers, "

      actually the buybull says that hares chew cud, axe heads float, a man walked on water and other such nonsense. people addicted to this ancient book lead sad, enslaved lives

      March 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Skound

      There's no solid evidence of "nothing" either. All the weirdness tells me there's more than we can observe.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:37 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.