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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. Matt

    "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
    Jesus Christ (Luke 10:19-20)

    March 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  2. Lucy

    The devil is alive and well. Just because you can't see the spiritual world doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We can't see the wind but we can see the effects of the wind. Too much mental illness is actually demon possession or oppression and that's a fact.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Matt

      Many forms of mental illness AND physical illness....

      March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  3. joe

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

    If they are acting, could they not also be acting like they can't remember? This is ridiculous.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Free Thinker

    Shame on CNN for reporting this story as anything other than church exploitation of mentally ill people. "Real exorcism"?? Really?? Stop putting these woo stories as breaking news on the CNN mobile site, PLEASE!!!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  5. Ed Napier

    Without question, evil exists in the world – this is obvious and without dispute. The notion of the ongoing cosmos being a war raged on by Good and Bad Forces can be found in the work of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles, who posited that all was a struggle between Love (the Apostle John's very definition of the ancient God of Israel BTW) and Strife. Could this not be seen as a similar notion of the "Enlightened" Physics' notion of the rendezvous between Positive and Negative Energies? As a man of Faith, I can tell you that I believe in Satan a much as I believe in God – for the very simple reason that I have encountered evil – utter, absolute, and in my face – but the spiritual dimension cannot be taught – at all. It must be experienced, but as Christ said, ask, and you will receive. Don't take my word for it. Do it. Do it as a joke. Ask God to reveal Himself to you, and He will come calling. As for eternal damnation, hell, and all that – it's far too complex for me to weigh in ... I think hell exists for those who separate themselves from God, but we know from the Book of Acts that Christians were having themselves baptized in the name of the dead. So who's to say? I think God gives us chance after chance, and it's important to remember that two of the greatest heros of the Talmud negotiated their causes with God Almighty: Jacob – who fought for his birthright, and Moses, who begged God not to kill the Children of Israel after making the idol of the golden calf and worshiping it after the Lord had freed them from Egypt. As Gabriel said to the Blessed Mother when she asked him, how would it be possible for her to conceive a child when she had never known a man? The Angel responded, with God, all things are possible. I believe this in my heart. And for all of the sure-footed atheists out there, I do not hate you, or condemn you for your utter idiocy and stupidity – as you would me – a man of Faith. In return, I say, I love you. And pray for you. The best for us all is yet to unfold. An finally, I will say, quoting an Episcopal priest I know, the Good News is – no, the Great News is not that Jesus came to earth to have his ministry, but indeed, that He is here. Right here. "Taste and see." From Salt Point, NY

    March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  6. sourpickles

    Oh come on !!!!! This is laughable............How about putting all prospective priests through the procedure just to make sure they don't get any "devilish" ideas.................

    March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  7. richunix

    @DDRM Your right, we don't believe in fantasy.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  8. Tom

    This is a complete hoax and propels nothing but ignorance in our lives. The Church has no proof of GOD even, much less "The Devil". The only evil in the world comes from the minds of ignorant men not supernatural beings. Why don't we belive in Zeus and all the other "gods" of mythology any more? In their own time they were "belived" to be as real as you and I. Why do people believe in Santa Claus, until they wake up and realize it is all a fabricated lie. Our brains want to creat God, because it promises something more than death – our greatest fear. That's it.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. Guest

    I have to sit back and laugh at the comments I have read. You see there are a few key points many of you are missing, and your ignorance is scary. If infact Angles, Demons, Ghosts, God and the Devil did not exist then Ims ure there wouldn't be a world wide debate on the issue from some of the most respected scientists, law makers and doctors..Which Im positive no more on the topic than the nregular joe blow posting comments on here regarding the mentally ill . How rude of you as well to insinuate that the mentally ill are the ones who feel they are possessed..Read the article "losers" an exorcist isn't a simple task and does not apply to everyone..P

    March 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  10. Brad 3060

    After reading these posts it scares me what kind of world this has turned into.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  11. Bella

    Funny.....people who have no direction or are scared, are quick to judge....

    March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Archangel Michael

    Send Charlie Sheehan his phone number

    March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Brandy

      LOL!!!!

      March 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  13. John

    All of us will give an account to Jesus, so please remember Matt6:33 –

    But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  14. Bill

    There is nothing worse a blight on progress than these sanctimonious dysfunctional Catholic priests. They pray on ignorance in order to build an empire and live in the shadows with their perversions.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  15. Marichuy

    Demons don't support good the name and prayers to a Virgin Mary, they try to hide, but often they can't when you start to talk about Virgin Mary.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Lucy

      Satan loves the Virgin Mary who is just another idol. Even Jesus said so. And how do you think those statues of Mary bleed? Satan. What apparitions appear as Mary? Satan.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Marichuy

      @Lucy
      Mother of Jesus is not a idol although demons can use sometimes appereance of saints, that's why a gift of distinction is important and all humility, because demons are masters of deception,they lie if they can...

      March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  16. joe

    I like checking in on CNN to get the latest biased news. But this is getting redic. Since when did CNN become the "Christian News Network"
    This is a news site, not a tool for Christians to impose their fear into people.
    Really CNN? REALLY??

    March 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Lucy

      Hey Joe. Christians do not promote fear, in fact, our leader repeatedly said to "Fear Not!" It is the devil that promotes fear as he prowls around to see who he can devour, kill, destroy. Oh yeah, and the Bible says, "Woe to those who call good evil and evil good."

      March 7, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • joe

      @Lucy, you are living in denial. If you don't behave well, you will burn in hell. people realy have the devil inside of them? are you kidding me?

      March 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Magic

      joe,

      You know what, though, it gives us non-believers the opportunity to debate with them and to inform them of some real-world facts. Where else? We certainly are not welcome on Christian-run forums.

      March 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  17. Kaye

    Why is this so surprising? Just read the gospels. Casting out demons was every day business to Jesus and the disciples who he annointed to do so. And it is fairly every day business for Christians who actually believe the Word of God. It would be wise to be called to do this....and to receive instruction from the Holy Spirit. If a demon is cast out without the healing of the origin of that possession, the person can take back something 7 times worse. And when Jews of Jesus' time on earth tried to exorcise without authority, the demons beat them to a pulp. So be careful.

    So be careful.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • DavidMichael

      We now know about seizure disorders and mental illness.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Matt

      The devil is crafty....and he doesn't mind one bit if people don't believe in him.

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

    If people are jerking their heads around, rolling their eyes, and having "epilleptic-like" seizures, clearly they have a medical problem and need to be seen by a doctor. If the church claims that their problems are caused by invisible demons and send a man with zero medical training to treat them, they're doing a huge disservice that borders on medical quackery.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • soapbox

      Mick they said it was the last step after many tests and they do have them checked out by Doctors just in case it is a medical reason that is causing this person to be this way! Didn't you read it?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Matt

      I was in a church youth service of about 50 teenagers one night when an unknown man of God from Nicaragua came to minister. This man had great authority over demons. So much so that (after preaching a short sermon about Jesus) he simply prayed that God would send the fire of His Spirit into the room. The moment he started praying, about 10-15 of the teenagers started manifesting Demons (screaming, cursing God, rolling on the ground like snakes, etc). A few hours later, all the teenagers were set free from the demons they had allowed into their lives. Many of them confessed to dabbling in the occult and other sins.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Lucy

      Actually, Mick, the medical community is doing a huge disservice to its patients if they rule out demonic activity. You can't treat a spiritual problem with medicine!!

      March 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • brad

      This article reminds me of Malachi Martin. He was a Jesuit with three PHD's and who spoke numerous languages. He was also a Vatican exorcist for three decades. Many times, stumped psychiatrists would suspect demonic activity in patients and refer them to Fr. Martin. In his book "Memories, Dreams, and Reflections", Carl Jung (father of analytical psychology) refered to "the ridiculous materialism" of the psychiatrists of his day. I see by these comments that ridiculous scientific materialism is still at work. Let's not be arrogant. Let's admit that there may be intelligence higher than our own. What if it was pure intelligence,i.e., bodiless. Could be that such an intelligence might be malevolent.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  19. DDRM

    Atheists love ignoring anything that they cannot comprehend.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Smarter Than You

      Religious nuts love creating out of idiot's cloth simple, populist explanations for things that are scientifically explicable to those with the intelligence to comprehend.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • DavidMichael

      Christians ignore contradictions in the bible. Hmm, two creation stories with one in which man is created then animals, the other with animals created then animals. Explain please.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • biblosity

      It takes a great deal of energy to believe in nothing. Is that where all the anger comes from?

      March 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Unfrozen Caveman

      And the "faithul" love attributing that which that can't explain to some sky fairy

      March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • richunix

      @DDRM:

      For two thousand years (most of that time under the threat of death), the Christian had to re-invent a deity from a simple man to a GOD. Also remember that the word GOD, Is of Germanic origin from the 6th century, so what was the name was used for your deity prior to then? It’s pretty simple stories that seemed to perpetuate over time without any truth other than what we invent. So let’s place those facts in a modern area:

      1. Moses states he saw GOD in a burning bush and was handed two or three tablets (if you believe Mel Brooks). Of course NO one else witness this transaction and the tablets (if existed) are lost to antiquity. And the Christian have the gall to question John Smith about seeing the golden tablets in a top hat!

      2. No one in the intervening years has parted the (any) sea, created a pillar of fire, turn to salt; flooded the planet (maybe a basement or two) come back from the dead, or killed an entire generation of first born and walk on water BAR NONE.

      If you haven’t figure it out by now, you never will. These are stories. They were created and inspired by men of all major cultures and if you really look, you will see the same story told with a different GOD’s name and a different location. If anyone today tried to use any of the for mention events in court they would get laugh out town. But yet when you ask a Christian did these things really happen…The resounding reply would be… Sure they did, cuz the bible told us so.

      No one (yes not one) who has a wasted money and time for PhD degree in theology has ever proven that any deity has ever existed then or even now. There basic argument is “intelligent design” or in laymen’s terms “something has had to create this”. So when I ask the enduring question what was the argument prior to modern thinking….I think his dumb look was still free. So take a “rock” outside and drop it, in planet with positive gravity, it will fall, but before it makes ground contact; ask your deity to stop it. Simple test with a simple result. Or will they fail to argumentum ad verecundiam.

      With all its failing the world is still a wonderful place and I enjoy each day, for life is wonderful and does have meaning. I will die and with that, I do not fear death for is very much part of life. Man will continue and yes we will evolve, as change is the only consent in this universe. If you really want to see if you live forever…. Go outside (or in your house) and look into a child’s eyes….you will see the spark of mankind and then you will realize we are eternal. For those who wish to believe….please do so as it gives you whatever comfort as life is the pursuit of happiness.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Lucy

      DavidMichael: You are ignorant regarding the writing of Scriptures. The first account is chronological and distinctly says that man was created after the animals. The second account just gives more details regarding the creation of man - has nothing to do with chronology.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Sceptical of Atheists

      There was only one story of creation in the Bible when I read it – it was called Genesis -- Where in the Bible is this 'other story' of creation? Please do tell.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  20. Mike

    Matt - no one in the Catholic church feels that 2012 is significant. In fact, church doctrine clearly rejects the notion of anyone knowing when the end-times will occur. Please do a little research before you make general condemnations about things you apparently don't know about.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • True believer

      I could not agree with you more. It is a gateway to something dark. My cousin had to be hospitalize after playing with that board.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:54 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.