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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. Brian

    this is not news! this is make believe rubbish!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  2. jlee

    remember the kid from the virginia tech shooting? his mom brought him from church to church for an excorcism while passing up the hospitals and look what happened... these people need REAL medical help, not crazy faith-heads who compound the problem with their unjustified beliefs in invisible monsters.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  3. Marty in MA

    What a crock. Save mental lilnessfor the health professionals.
    If religion didn't cause the problem, maybe it can cure it, yeah, right.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  4. M.

    Ok, let me take a look through my window for a second. Cars, yes. There is a plane in the sky, yes. And what is this in front of me? A computer? Ok, I'm still in 21st century.

    So, CNN, why do people who believe in nonsense of this magnitude get a space to talk about it unchallenged?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Frogist

      @M: Besides the challenge that many posters have put up, if you look through the Belief Blog's archives you will see that many viewpoints regarding religion are presented and challenged. Unfortunately religion has become a defining point for discussion lately in society which makes it important and necessary for greater discussion on the topic.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • dmm

      Why? Because issues of morality and values and belief systems are still relevant. You might recognize the well-known scientist who said this:

      Our time is distinguishedby wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind.

      What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living.

      Albert Einstein, — From Goldman, p. 88.

      March 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  5. Jason

    Yesterday, cnn.com's cover story was about an apocalyptic cult. Today it's about an exorcist who inspired a movie most of us think of as fiction.

    CNN, don't you want to be taken seriously in this modern world?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      I think they're trying to compete with the National Enquirer.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  6. Kevin

    Matthew 7:21-23

    21 “Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will. 22 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.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Tom

      Ah. Dr Seuss?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  7. A Rationalist

    Stop taking up space on CNN's website with this nonsense. How is it that we do not group people who believe in this crap in with the likes of Charlie Sheen, Gaddafi, and others who have lost touch with reality?

    “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."

    The above statement is disgusting. Perhaps they also believe in hobbits, goblins, fairies and dragons as well? Why do people hold silly beliefs from the Dark Ages even after so much of this crap has been shown to be utter nonsense?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Tom

      Some of us do group them together 🙂

      March 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      They believe it because they've been brainwashed, practically from birth to believe it and they're not intelligent enough to look at it objectively, using logic and reason.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Luis Wu: I think it a little harsh to call believers unintelligent. I think it's more like the possibility and environment for questioning those beliefs are simply unavailable. Or even more likely, it's not really something that's come up. Most believers are not like the rabid whackos that sometimes infest the blogs at CNN. They are just going about their business not really considering other more logical options. It's habit.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  8. David

    Sadly, The Pope himself, The Pontiff of the $500B Vatican, knows no more about the afterlife than the beggar at the gates of the Vatican. All religions profit by preaching the unknowable and denying the knowable.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  9. 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.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Mr Reason

      That is awesome. I am going to use that one more often. I like it. Snarky and true if you take a step back.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • anon

      This is the best thing I've ever read!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  10. Thinker

    Exorcism? Really??

    Guess CNN has decided to go down the path of FOX "News" and the National Enquirer.

    Anyone out there have any ideas/suggestions on better News site? I am looking to replace CNN . . .

    March 7, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Thedude123

      theoion.com

      March 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • JoeSchmoe1111

      No, there are absolutely 0 unbiased or non brain dead news sites left. Zero, nada, not a one. This is what we're left with... Moronic ramblings of people who probably have a hard time trying to wipe themselves.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Thinker: Three letters... N P R

      March 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  11. Pete

    I'd pretend to be serious about all that nonsense if I could get a fat paycheck for helping Anthony Hopkins get in character.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  12. Jolnir

    When will these sideshow barkers realize that they are merely "exorcising" their own god who likes to play evil pranks. Their own book tells them so. Why they think they are fighting a "devil" reflects so very poorly on them.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  13. OnanismO

    He doesn't "do them on demand"??? HA HA! The correct answer is, "he doesn't do them.....PERIOD!" because the "devil" is as non-existent as "god". Get real!

    March 7, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  14. Godless

    If anyone wonders why aliens haven't contacted us yet, it's because of statements like “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."

    The aliens probably believe that there is little intelligent life on this planet. And they would be right.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Val

      Now that's funny~ and I must agree!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  15. rev richard

    I'm nearly speechless. The church burned tens of thousands of alleged witches alive to defeat the power of Satan,
    defend that, too, oh ye of unbounded faith.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Sean

      Quite.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Rob

      If you truly believed and thought that your neighbors were controlling the weather and making your soil unfertile so that your farm wouldn't cultivate, you would want something done to your neighbors too. The burning of people at the stake was done because of a public outcry to take action, not at the sole discretion of a few individuals.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • luvuall

      And Rob that doesn't make it right -unless you are ok with the pretty horrible treatment the Jewish people have received throughout history often due to Catholic dogma people were made to "believe". Treat your neighbor as yourself: so simple and so true for so long...

      March 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Rob: Yes, if you truly believed that, surely you would ask for something to be done. But the problem began when no one questioned this "true belief" that they had. Instead they justified that belief by taking action on it so making the belief stronger and the injustice of those acts greater. This is why the voices of the logical and sharp-minded and skeptical need to be heard when we hear of unbelievable things like demon possession and exorcisms.

      March 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  16. billy bebop

    the Exorcist was not based on an exorcism in Washington DC – it was based on an exorcism in St. Louis, MO. It took place in DuBourg Hall on what is now the campus of St. Louis University.

    only in the movie was the scene moved to Georgetown in DC

    March 7, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Ted Goode

      The actual case happened in Silver Spring, MD. It was only later moved after the initial applications of the Roman Ritual in Georgetown to the St. Louis setting, where, during Holy Week, it was finally completed. When it was over, a manifestation of St. Michael the Archangel appeared to penitents in the campus chapel.

      Read Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin (?) and pray to St. Michael.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  17. KS

    You don't have to believe, but you don't have to mock either. In any case, I believe it and I'm happy they had this article. I find it very interesting! Thanks CNN!

    March 7, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Dan

      I'm sorry to disagree... but some things just invite mocking and it would be disrespectful to ignore the invitation. Not all opinions are equally valid. The belief that storks bring babies is not an valid theory that should be respected by the medical community. Similarly, the idea that invisible demons inhabit humans is equally silly.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      @Dan – Absolutely. Stupidity should be mocked at every opportunity.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • luvuall

      So Dan and Luis basically what you are saying is that come Christmas time you will be making fun of all the children lined up to see "Santa Claus"? Well, isn't that special? 😉

      March 7, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Godless

      luvuall wrote: "So Dan and Luis basically what you are saying is that come Christmas time you will be making fun of all the children lined up to see "Santa Claus"? Well, isn't that special?"

      The difference is, children don't have the analytical skills to know what is real and what isn't. Although, apparently neither do most adults.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Dan

      luvuall,

      Don't you realize that your argument acknowledges (and even argues) that believing in demonic possession is childish!
      So... we are in agreement!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  18. Stubbycat

    The fearful mythogies of mortals are attention-getters to the media. As to the reality of demon-possession, it is as real as a mortal's belief in fear, space, time and death as real as a mortal's sense that the infinite spiritual GOD, good is not here on earth and is boxed up somewhere else in creation. But to those who recognize that all is Mind and that man is the spiritual image and likeness of Mind, then evil and all the limitations of the flesh are certain illusions which mortals experience because, consciously or unconsciously, they believe in them. In the final analysis, everything is as real as we make it.

    March 7, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Guest

      Well said.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  19. kilmoturtles

    This priest does not do Exorcisms on demand, but I do. I charge $150 an hour, but I definitely think this is worth getting the devil out of your soul. I just ask that you have an open mind, and an open wallet. Contact me if you need saving!

    March 7, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  20. A God-Fearing Christian Woman

    Oh my lord! Save the beautiful childrens from the pixies/leprachauns/ghosts/spirits etc that are haunting my daughter/son!

    Praise Kwanzaa!

    March 7, 2011 at 11:49 am |
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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.