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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. Upperhand

    @ pat carr – Jesus Christ didn't come into the world to conform to it, He came so that the world SHOULD conform to Him.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  2. israel

    I can understand what this man is saying having experienced excorsm first hand at University.I guess people have different experiences in life.Demons are real.I am not stupid.I went to University twice(I am a programmer by the way) and I used to be an Atheist.such things are beyond Science and I am an Engineer by the way.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  3. BernieD

    To Ania, where on earth did you found a nun or a priest have a BMW or Lexus in their garage. For 1 thing they don't live in regular houses, they live in convents, monasteries, and parish houses. Most that I've seen around rides in bike or beat-up SUV or trucks maybe a gift from the biological family before joining their spritual family. You sounded so bitter and envious, and your knowledge and view about God and religion is so limited that I just want to pray for you that God will touch you heart once again maybe thru some other people or some event and you will be closer to HIM once again 🙂 LOL

    March 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. SueRH

    Well said, Suz!

    March 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  5. Prodigal Son

    Love knows no fear.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  6. logic

    If there is a God, then there is a devil. Plain and simple

    March 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Tom

      That works for me. No God. No Devil. Simple.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  7. bostongye

    Why does everyone have to get all up in arms? What is it about this country that everyone feels that everyone else should hear their opinion. Maybe theres something to it, maybe there isnt. Either way its interesting.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Tom

      I'll tell you: I'm afraid that if I don't speak out, religion will infiltrate my everyday life the way it has in the Middle East. This may help you understand why I speak out whenever I see/hear/read someone perpetuating the the myth. Check this out:

      When the Nazis came for the communists,
      I remained silent;
      I was not a communist.

      When they locked up the social democrats,
      I remained silent;
      I was not a social democrat.

      When they came for the trade unionists,
      I did not speak out;
      I was not a trade unionist.

      When they came for the Jews,
      I remained silent;
      I wasn't a Jew.

      When they came for me,
      there was no one left to speak out.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  8. InFaMoUsLy_AgNoStIc

    look, I think we're in a time and place where Religion shouldn't hold stock in our lives. not just as individuals but on a Global scale.. would Christian A give Muslim B a dirty look? or the other way around? Come on people, like i said earlier. We make fun of people in Antiquity because they prayed to Zeus, Poseidon, Hades.... mythological beings manifested by a CHURCH of some sort. If we do KNOW anything is that History repeats itself over and over..... and over. But someone will come along and say " well they lived a long time ago and THEIR Gods are old... but this one right here.. The Great HaagenDaaaz.. who was the son of.... who turned a city to.... by the power of........ blah blah blah blah blah.... Fairy Tales told to the masses

    March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  9. MicahMooreNabob

    Dude, Satan's awesome. Y'all Bible-thumbers and Jesus Freaks got ta chill out. What y'all don't know is that JC, Mohammed and Luci and his f***buddy Evie (if you see Adam, keep your mouth shut!) were watching Jennifer's Body last night. (Mohammed left for some reason after the make-out scene, probably to, uhh...you know...well, in the words of my boi Luci, "choke the bishop" =D)

    March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  10. Colin

    Sagan pegged it 10 years ago. It is the degenration of education in the basic sciences in the USA that leads to such superst-itious garbage as exorcisms being taken seriously.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  11. Curious Christian

    @ Idiocracy

    But at the same time, isnt there that old phrase (cant remember who said it): "To believe in something is to give it power?"

    I believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ, but I don't believe that theres "some bearded guy with with a pitchfork" going around and making people misbehave. To believe such a thing actually exists, like my initial argument said, is to contradict the very foundation of Christianity, that there is only one omnipotant, all loving God and that he has no equal. To believe in the Devil contradicts either/both tenants, that God has no equal, or that God is all knowing and all loving.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Suz

      That's a good point – and pretty much why I converted to Judaism (Jews don't really believe in hell in the traditional sense, either).

      But I have a question: you say you believe in Jesus as your Savior, right? I think that's great – Jesus was an exemplary human being – BUT why do you believe in him as a Savior? If he's not saving you from damnation, what is he saving you from? Not trying to be snarky – just trying to have intelligent discussion. 🙂

      March 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Adrian

      Curious Christian,

      I'm glad you're thinking about this issue critically. I have two questions:

      1. Why is Satan non-existent if he is talked about hundreds of times across the bible in both Testaments? Seems like to deny the existence of Satan is to deny the inerrancy of the Bible, which then would cause everything you claim to believe to crumble. Not sure how you can be a Christian (i.e., follower of Christ and God’s teachings through the Bible) but not believe in the existence of Satan. If you say Satan doesn’t exist, aren’t you in effect saying you don’t believe parts of the Bible? If so, are you really a Christian? And if Satan didn’t exist, then what was the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross?

      2. How does God being loving mean that Satan doesn’t exist? The existence of Satan does not mean the absence of God’s love. The love of God is manifested by the simple fact that each and everyone one of us DESERVES death because we have sinned against him, but in his LOVE, he has allowed us to continue living and in effect given us a second chance (or more like third, fourth, millionth) chance to repent, be reconciled to him, and spend eternity with him. That to me is a loving God.

      If there wasn’t evil, how would we know good? At that point, everything would be the same – just plain vanilla. Nothing’s hot or cold, fun or boring, up or down. It’s all the same. By ALLOWING evil to occur (which is different from CREATING evil with intention of causing pain for the sake of pain), God shows us love by giving us something to which we can compare good, so we know much more how good God really is.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  12. scared

    reading all of the comments on this board only verifies the priests remarks regarding how far America has fallen away from God.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  13. AJ

    Are there any Muslims that are possessed by the devil or do you have to believe in a Christian God to become possessed?

    This is another example of religious radicalism and these types of beliefs make the world a much worse place.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Teresa

      Actually I agree with you, the surfacing of angry demons and exorcising comes from the catholic church and poured over into churches that broke away from the catholic church. Really Jehova God and Jesus Christ really only talked about Passover, to be forgiven for sin and be protected from the things in this to be protected from things in this world, not exorcisms with magicals words. Jesus Christ said out him or her you demon, just like that nothing magical

      March 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  14. Daniel

    Catholic priests are not the only ones who can perform an exorcism. Anyone who is filled with the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ and has been baptized in the holy spirit can remove a demon and engage in spiritual warfare.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  15. Steve

    All you Athiest dont live in science either, you believe your life has value when scientifically it doesnt.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  16. CJ

    Read Zecharia Sitchin's books for THE reality behind the Bible.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Legitimate Question

      Or, just read the Bible yourselves and draw your own conclusions. You don't need someone else's opinion to form your own.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • Suz

      @Legitimate Question – first sensible comment I've read here so far! Well done. 🙂

      March 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Stunned

      Legitimate Question:

      Which version of the Bible? There are hundreds. The version you are reading was compiled by what "other people" in "their opinions" decided that you should read.

      A real, smart, "God" would have nothing to do with this book..

      March 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  17. Diane

    May God bless and protect Father Thomas and may He shower down every ounce of grace on him now and forever! I pray too that every church (not just in the States) but in the whole world will have an Exorcist ready when needed. The spiritual battle has begun long ago and we need the Catholic Priests! God Bless! +++

    March 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • mdc

      I need an excorcist like I need a prostate exam. I hope to never get either.

      March 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Teresa

      Obviously a satan worshipper

      March 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • raelalt

      "Obviously a satan worshipper".
      .
      How do you know he's not a prostate worshiper?

      March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  18. Suz

    Boy, all it takes is a front page article about religion to draw out ALL the zealot nutcases – both believer AND nonbeliever.

    Seriously – everyone needs to quit telling everyone else what to believe. If you don't believe, great. If you do believe, great. But neither side should be trying to convince the other that they're right. Fact of the matter is, you can live a moral, generous, gentle life WITH OR WITHOUT faith. Get over yourselves.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • InFaMoUsLy_AgNoStIc

      hahahahahah yea i agree, it just gets annoying when i have people cramming "truth" to my life

      March 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • BOB in Indiana

      You are correct in stating people can live good lives withouut faith. The question is can they be saved? Hebrews chapter 11
      explains what faith is & how it's impossible to please God without it.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  19. JustForTheRecord

    "100% of internet atheists are atheists only because they are raging against mommy and daddy who made them take a bible class when they were younger. Take that mom that will show you to make me consume the holy spirit!!"

    Sorry MustObeyRichardDawkins, I'm also an atheist raised by non religious parents. So your 100% claim must be at least a little high, not unlike yourself.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Upperhand

      Wow, raised by non religious parents...an entire family of non believers hell bound. Dad must be proud.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  20. Harry

    Exorcism bears a remarkable resemblance to ritual magic, except it just has the Church's stamp of approval on it. Of course I doubt anyone from the Church would ever agree with that statement.

    March 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Enoch_knows_whos_names_are_written

      magick

      March 7, 2011 at 2:48 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.