Shadowing an Exorcist

A movie starring Anthony Hopkins explores exorcism. The man who wrote the book behind the film talks about what chasing the devil really entails.

The cover of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio.
The cover of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio. (photo: CNS)

Matt Baglio’s curiosity was piqued.

An exorcism course at a Vatican-affiliated university in Rome? It was an unusual topic. As an American journalist living in the Eternal City, he thought it might make for an interesting article; as a non-practicing Catholic at the time, he approached it with some skepticism.

Taught by exorcists and experts in theology, satanic cults, criminology and psychology, the course he took challenged many of his assumptions. But what really intrigued him was the openness and honesty of a fellow student, Father Gary Thomas, a priest from the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., whose bishop, Patrick McGrath, had asked him to undergo training as an exorcist.

As the two got to know each other, a friendship — and a book — were born. The book, in turn, gave rise to a major film starring Anthony Hopkins, The Rite, to be released in theaters Jan. 28.

Baglio’s book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist , follows Father Thomas through his hands-on training with an experienced exorcist in Rome and accompanies him on his first exorcisms. At the same time, Baglio’s research provides a more detailed understanding of the history, rites and rituals of exorcism according to Catholic teaching.

Baglio spoke about some of the insights he gained from researching and writing The Rite.

It’s unusual for a layperson to write about a topic such as exorcism. What were you hoping to achieve with this book?

I wanted the book to be as real as possible. Too often in the past, most books on the topic have fallen into two categories — either they were written by priests who believe 100% or they are written by skeptics who don’t want to believe. I fell right in the middle. I didn’t discount the possibility that it was real, but there were some aspects that didn’t convince me.

Even exorcists admit that 90% of the people who come to see them don’t need an exorcism. I tried to focus my research on that remaining 10% and came to the conclusion that even though some of these cases could be explained, there were still a few that remained outside the scientifically explainable.

Being naturally curious, I wanted to understand what was going on. I wanted to shine a light on this phenomenon so that believers and skeptics could look at this topic and say, “I’ve never seen it talked about like this before.”

In addition, while I had read books on the theology of exorcism before, I’d never read a book about what it was like to actually be an exorcist, and the book was really an attempt to present the topic through the eyes of this journey. 

What did you learn that changed your previous assumptions about exorcism?

One was that the exorcist has to be the ultimate skeptic. At first, the skepticism surprised me, but then it made sense — because the last thing you want is a priest who sees the demon behind every corner.

I was also surprised by the sophistication of many of the exorcists; they had doctorates, spoke many languages, and they didn’t have the fundamentalist approach I had expected. Every exorcist I talked to was also incredibly humble. They weren’t these action-hero types you’d expect. Some of them were very old, frail, shy and timid. During an exorcism, they pray the ritual very calmly and quietly. Hollywood wants the dramatic elements; they want the holy water to hit the person, the scream, the cross, etc., but it’s usually not like that.

Another was that exorcism is not a one-shot deal. People think that once the exorcist begins praying the ritual, he doesn’t stop until it’s over, and if the demon isn’t cast out, the exorcism was a failure. But it’s really a journey, a process.

Many people think that exorcism is on the fringe. I was surprised to learn that the theology behind exorcism isn’t. Exorcism was central to what Jesus was trying to do in his public ministry. There was spiritual warfare in the early Church, and it has been passed on to priests today who are now exorcists.

It’s important to note that exorcism works in tandem with the sacraments, especially reconciliation. The goal is to weaken the power of the demon so that the person can return to practicing their faith, praying and receiving the sacraments.

How does an exorcist distinguish between cases of psychological illness and cases of demonic possession?

Exorcists have to work with mental-health experts, because there is a fine line between mental illness and demonic possession, and it can be difficult to discern. Someone who says he hears voices or demons talking to him could be suffering from schizophrenia, for example.

The priest has to be cautious, and there has to be a process. To discern the presence of an evil spirit, they look for various signs: First, they have an interview with the person, then they send the person to see a mental-health specialist, and then the person comes back and the exorcist begins to pray blessings over them.

Exorcism is not an exact science. There’s a lot of mystery to it. In the end, everything depends on the will of God and on the person’s free cooperation.

How do people become victims of demonic possession in the first place?

It’s said there are various ways a person can open a doorway and become possessed. Exorcists told me that it’s mainly people who take their focus away from God, who don’t practice their faith, go to church or receive the sacraments.

According to exorcists, the No. 1 reason is an involvement in the occult. There could be other factors at work, such as a curse or being part of a Satanic cult.

Every case is different, but the one common factor seems to be that it’s about personal choice, personal responsibility. I had one exorcist tell me that demonic possession isn’t a disease; there are no predisposed qualities that a person has that can cause them to become attacked by a demon. A person needs to open up a doorway, and so in this way, we must be aware of our actions and try to avoid grave sins. 

This also means that in order for a person to become liberated they have to be proactive and correct the behaviors or actions that may have led them into becoming a victim in the first place.

How faithful is the movie to the spirit of the book? We know that the character of Father Gary Thomas was changed from a priest to a young seminarian having doubts about his faith; that’s one major departure from the book. Does the movie present the priesthood and the theology of exorcism accurately?

The movie is slightly different from the book, but there’s nothing in the movie that isn’t theologically posited in the book, so they’re not pulling things out of left field. The filmmakers have tried to be very faithful to the theology of the Church on the dynamics of demonic possession.

The message is very similar to my book, which is this idea that evil likes to stay hidden, but it’s through belief, through faith, that you’re able to overcome it.

I helped on the set of the film, and Father Gary Thomas was also on the set. He said the exorcisms they were filming were “very believable.” They were very careful to make this film as real as possible. When you’re dealing with this topic, you don’t have to sensationalize it too much. The topic is dramatic enough.

Register correspondent Trish Bailey de Arceo writes from Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.