Real exorcist behind 'The Rite' discusses new film

A recent Barna Group study found that 40 percent of U.S. Christians believe that Satan is not a living being but is only a symbol of evil. But as a practicing exorcist who has battled demons firsthand, Father Gary Thomas is one man who has no doubts about Satan’s presence in the world.

Father Thomas’ dramatic experiences as one of the class of priests called to direct battle with the devil has inspired the new film “The Rite,” which opened in theaters Jan. 28 and is itself based on the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” by Matt Baglio (Doubleday Religion, $24.95). Surprisingly, “The Rite” is a serious-minded film that, while occasionally sensationalistic, portrays its two main characters — a veteran exorcist (Anthony Hopkins) and a young deacon (Colin O’Donoghue) — with utter respect, and answers questions of faith and doubt with strong proof of the existence of demons and evil.

Speaking with Our Sunday Visitor by phone from his northern California parish, Father Thomas explained why he feels “The Rite” is a valuable movie-going experience.

“The movie is loosely based on the book, and the book is written about my experiences being trained as an exorcist in Rome. The book is all true, but the movie took some license, which is OK,” said Father Thomas. “I think what makes this movie different is there’s a much better plot developed and it’s a movie about faith, and not how we can scare people. I was on set to give some direction on the exorcism scenes, and they are very accurate and very true to life for the most part. The prayers and dialogue between Hopkins and my character is much more in sync with the teaching of the Church.” 

Real life exorcist at work

Father Thomas was trained as an exorcist when his bishop in the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., decided to appoint an exorcist after receiving a growing spate of calls from people “claiming experiences of the diabolical.” After another priest declined the invitation, Father Thomas accepted the challenge.

One thing that Father Thomas hopes to stress, and which he urged the filmmakers to show, is that exorcists first seek to learn if a person is merely afflicted with mental illness. He noted that most of the time, people actually have mental health issues and are merely seeing and hearing things because they’re not on proper medication or because they’re suffering from past sexual abuse.

To help him discern if there’s simply a need for mental health care, Father Thomas works with a medical doctor and a psychiatrist.

“My role is to get to what’s the root cause,” he told OSV. “People say, ‘I need an exorcist,’ but I say I don’t do them on demand and my role is to get to the root cause. The last thing an exorcist does is an exorcism.” 

Hollywood’s turning point?

Father Thomas acknowledged that not everyone in the Church is pleased with Hollywood’s portrayal of exorcisms and diabolical forces. For example, Bishop Thomas Paprocki — who heads the Springfield, Ill., diocese and also serves as head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and Church governance — believes that most movies about the subject do a disservice by showing the freakish extremes of behavior that possessed people go through, without showing the fact that evil often worms its way into human hearts in more subtle fashions.

“I know Bishop Paprocki, and he and most exorcists would say the Sacrament of Penance is more powerful, with exorcism as the last resort,” said Father Thomas. “We don’t do exorcisms on demand. It’s the last thing when all else fails, and the exorcist has to have a certainty that an exorcist is what’s most prudential.”

Ultimately, Father Thomas is hoping that with “The Rite” grounded in his and Baglio’s consultations and powerfully emotional yet realistic performances by stars Hopkins and O’Donoghue, it could be a key turning point in how Hollywood portrays the Church and the existence of evil both now and in the future. 

Carl Kozlowski writes from California.