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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. Karloff

    No sympathy for the moronic and the deluded.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  2. John

    There is no one that is closer to god than anybody else. Why do some people prop themselves up as being closer to god than someone else? By the way, I'm taking messages for the lord for the next hour.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Karloff

      Can you please ask god where all my right foot socks go after I do the laundry?

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

      "Hi, my name is Jonah, and I'll be your waiter this evening. Welcome to the Belly of the Whale Seafood Restaurant and Religious Emporium! Would you like a drinks menu?"

      March 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  3. Sy2502

    The really scary part in all this?
    All these simpletons who believe in demons and exorcisms can vote.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • John

      And they can be elected as president of the US. I just hope they don't think god will help our country or be on our countries side when making decisions. They can't get elected without at least saying that they are very religious.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  4. KEYLARGO

    That garbage does make decent entertainment, so do the great illusionist like David Copperfield. Circus is always worth a watch.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  5. barney

    It isn't up to the believer to convince anyone. We know the truth in Christ. We have no need to convince. The onus is on the non-believer to prove God isn't there. And, that Christ didn't die for us. The great thing about the truth is that it can never lose. If you want proof God exists and Christ is our savior, you will have to find it yourself. Just like a child who finally gives respect to his/her parent, and tries to understand what is it that they are saying to them. God's door is always open...just like a good parent whose child has run away. That parent will always love you, and wait for you to come around. You have to have an open mind, heart, and soul. What do you have to lose? If you take the time to look up into the sky at night, or amaze at life itself, or think deeply about black holes, or try to understand how complicated something as simple as a tree leaf is, and NOT think there is the possibility of there being angels, demons, God, and Satan....well, then I say you are missing something big. Remember, the Bible says we see things imperfectly as through a clouded mirror. If you were the devil, wouldn't you want everyone to think all of this "God stuff" was fantasy and make-believe? Yes, you would. The further he can get you away from a relationship with God, the better off he is. Satan hates mankind because God loves us. Period. Think about it. If you really want to understand what all the "hoopla" is about with Christ, pick up a Bible and start with the New Testament. The first 4 books are the Gospel; i.e. Jesus's ministry on earth. Then go from there. The Old Testament is essentially the growth of man whom God made in his own image. It culminates with Christ. I have had a great study bible for years and years....it helps with the historical timing, context, who wrote the books, logistics, geography, demographic, everything that will take some confusion away from it. The Bible is the most intriguing, highest level of thought and spiritual truth there is. You will never be the same. And you will find peace, joy, and love. God Bless you.

    March 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • toxictown

      '...Looking up into the night sky...and imagining God, and angels and devils...' is exactly what is wrong with all this stuff and it is not harmless. Maybe things just are and there is not some celestial hall-monitor tallying up plus's and minus's on everyone and threatening them with violence. Believe all the sillyness you want.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Godless

      "It isn't up to the believer to convince anyone. We know the truth in Christ. We have no need to convince. The onus is on the non-believer to prove God isn't there."

      Actually, the EXACT OPPOSITE is true. The onus is on the ones making the claim that god is real. How are people supposed to prove that god isn't real? How does one prove a negative? It can't be done. It's like saying "Prove there is not a planet 100,000,000 light years away that is populated by pink unicorns, and they are in a constant life and death battle with orange dinosaurs." How would you disprove it? Same idea.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  6. Harleyf150

    As a Ukrainian Catholic i never knew of anyone getting this done to them i love my Ukrainian Cathoilc Church . The devil is trying to get as much souls as he can and i see some ppl on this blog is falling right into his hands o well enjoy lol

    March 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • James

      For what purpose is the devil trying to get souls? And if god is all powerful, why is he unable to stop the devil from soul-collecting, to whatever end?

      Really, it's all very silly, and Hell is for children.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  7. The Devil

    David Johnson is possessed, but he don't believe in me, so he don't know it. Besides, I love my dwelling within him. He does all my work for me. Hope he likes my reward, a hot a-ss!

    March 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  8. Not a lemming

    Religion is poison.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  9. Carl Phillips

    Only CNN would think that nonsense like this is newsworthy.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  10. Larry

    Horse hockey.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  11. Richard Buchanan

    "If we believe in absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." “Where knowledge ends, religion begins.” Benjamin Disraeli

    March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • barney

      Ridiculous statement by a short-sighted individual. The ultimate knowledge is in Christ and God. I do partly agree with you because man created religion. Remember that. It isn't about religion. It's about Jesus Christ. It's about God. And it's about your journey with Him. Do not put your faith in man. It sounds like you may be doing that. Stop worshiping man and looking for the next Priest to fall so you can make fun of Christianity. Man is not God. Man is sinful. Period. But Christ saved us. You can't look to the flawed (man) to understand the flawless (Christ). Look into Christ. Read the Bible and learn about it through study. If there's a 1% chance that it is 100% true, even the most fervent rationalizing atheist would have to use logic to say "Well, if it is true and my short time on this earth ends...I'm screwed". That should be enough to look into this Christ. It's love brother. It's all love. Don't follow man. Follow Christ.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • toxictown

      Barney, it's an interesting book of historical fiction cobbled together from an array of near-eastern myths and campfire stories.When the ruling classes figured out that they could scare people into doing with religious stories what they want (that conveniently do not have to be backed up with anything more than "I say so") rather than having to beat it into them, they became instruments of the state. There may indeed be some sort of "god" but you are not going to find it in these state sanctioned books of nonsense.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Michael Channel

    I find it a intriguing that those who rail here against CNN doing an article on exorcism, actually took time to read the article. If you are so bothered by a news organization writing on such a topic, why did you bother to read it in the first place? It's also interesting to me that those who feel so strongly about their beliefs are so open to blast others who feel strongly about their beliefs. Just because your intellectual, spiritual, emotional journey hasn't brought you to a belief in the need for exorcism, doesn't mean that the need doesn't exist and also doesn't mean that others are idiots for believing in the need. Just because you don't believe in something doesn't make it any less true. Nice work.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Tom

      Yes, Michael, it does.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  13. 4sanity

    "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." It's called a grand mal seizure – medical condition because of a neurological defect .... and frequently severity can be controlled by drugs. No need to invoke imaginary demons.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  14. Mr Mark

    "It's a healing ministry. It's not hocus pocus. It's not smoke and mirrors." says Thomas.

    And your proof for that would be????

    Demons. This guy believes in demons. My 13 year-old is smarter than that. And, yes, smarter is the correct word in this instance.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  15. reality check

    Here's living proof that all nut-jobs haven't already been rounded up. I wonder, is the fee that this vulture is charging for this "procedure" covered under O'Bummer's health care plan and is it tax-deductible?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Say it ain't so

      Goes to show what you know, priests don't charge for exorcisms. It's like would a cop charge a person for taking a burglar from his home. No, it doesn't work that way.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  16. Michael

    You're a sucker if you believe this garbage. America's top exorcist? More like one of America's top cons.

    March 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Lucy

      I agree there is a transaction and $$$ involved here called a "donation" Even tax credit called "Charitable donation".

      The next words of Jesus show that many who would claim to be his followers would fall short in this regard: “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?’ And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness.”—Matt. 7:22, 23.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  17. mf

    this is simply marketing for the movie. nothing to see here move along people...

    March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  18. IamGOD

    HAHAHAA!!!!! PRIESTS/PREACHERS = snake oil salesman

    March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  19. Frank T.

    Is there such thing as "Faith in Science"?

    March 7, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  20. JDogma

    If you witness one of these, you will believe. Until then, you should not speak of something you are uneducated about...it is a fool's game. I have witnessed similar rituals by other religions. Some things can be explained, some things are simply not explainable. I really dont care whether you believe or not, as it does not affect me in any manner...I simply ask that you be careful.

    JD

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

      if you could only witness what I witnessed , I saw ZEUS he is real...

      March 7, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Tom

      I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.

      March 7, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • radam82

      I've been trying to summon demons for years...And nothing...Nothing and more Nothing. Just fairly tales.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • toxictown

      They always make sure there are a few witnesses to tell others about the "performance". Theatre done in the dark for nobody isn't going to be very affective now is it? It's in Chapter 1 of the Confidence Tricksters handbook. Suckers.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Karloff

      More than likely what you witnessed was mental illness.

      March 7, 2011 at 1:04 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.