By Shirley Aaron |
IN his 2011 film, Anthony Hopkins plays a priest who casts out the Devil… but the churchman who advised him on set reveals here how he has dealt with the real thing…
The images are terrifying. Girls scream in agony, their bodies inhumanly contorted. They spit curses and growl in unknown tongues. Demonic possession, and those who battle it, have been a recurrent theme in films from 1973’s classic The Exorcist to the thriller movie ‘The Rite’.
But to Father Gary Thomas The Rite is no Hollywood fantasy. It’s his life. The movie tells the story of the clergyman’s own chilling journey to becoming an exorcist, learning all he knows about battling the Devil from a venerable priest, played on screen by Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins.
“I don’t think I’d ever seen Satan until I became an exorcist,” says Father Thomas, who spent a week on the movie set in Hungary as an adviser. “I’m not offended if someone doesn’t believe it. What I’ve described, I’ve seen.” Hopkins plays Father Lucas, based on Father Thomas’s mentor, Rome’s leading exorcist Father Carmine De Filippis. In the film, Father Thomas is renamed Michael Kovak, played by Colin O’Donoghue, Irish star of TV series ‘The Tudors’.
But as filming progressed, the cast grew nervous of demonic possession. “The producer and the two key actors all asked me privately if they could be attacked by doing this movie,” says Father Thomas. “I said: ‘I can’t absolutely say yes or no,’ which led me to say: ‘possibly.’ They were afraid.”
Hopkins pressed ahead with the role but when he walked the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere, the Welsh star was sure to keep Father Thomas at his side as cameras swirled around them. Father Thomas, 64, who ministers to the Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga, California, is one of the rare American priests trained as an exorcist.
Demand for exorcism is at an alltime high in the US and priests can’t keep up. Father Thomas receives a new request about every two days. Yet he fears no evil. “You don’t have to be afraid of demons,” he says, unabashed about his belief in demonic possession, despite sceptics even within his own church. “You have to give evil a certain amount of respect because demons are more powerful than humans and without Christ we are dead. But no, I’m never scared.”
He was selected by his bishop to attend a Vatican-sponsored course in Italy in 2005 in response to a disturbing increase in reported cases of possession. He was later apprenticed to Father Carmine, attending dozens of demon-battling rites. His initial scepticism and training were chronicled in a best-selling book The Rite, by Matt Baglio, which became the basis for the film.
Father Thomas recalls when “Lisa”, a married woman in her 20s, was brought to his parish office by family members worried about her sudden violent outbursts. “I felt a huge presence in the room,” says Father Thomas, who began to pray. “Her face started to distort, she started speaking in a language not known to me that she hadn’t been competent in before.
She was hissing and spitting and exhibiting a serpentine look both in her body language and her face. She kept rolling her eyes.” He had seen this before – demonic possession. “I laid my crucifix on her. She let out an incredible scream. I took my stole, which represents my authority as a member of the Catholic Church and as a priest, and I laid it on her. She slid out of the chair and on to the floor to get away from it. I said: ‘That’s enough for today.’”
A woman possessed in The Rite spits up metal nails and Father Thomas admits: “I have never actually seen that but another priest in Rome told me himself that he had seen that more than once.” To many, exorcism seems a relic of the Dark Ages that has no place in the modern Catholic Church as it tries to recover from the scandal of child abuse by priests. But Father Thomas insists: “Satan hasn’t gone away. He is relevant in and out of season.”
It was the late Pope John Paul II who sent a letter to all US dioceses asking each bishop to appoint and train an exorcist, propelling Father Thomas to Rome in 2005. Classes at the Vatican-sponsored Regina Apostolorum taught the history and theology of exorcism but Father Thomas quickly realised that he needed a mentor and began attending rites with Father Carmine De Filippis.
“Being able to be apprenticed under an exorcist in Rome was far more profound,” he says. Father Thomas witnessed and assisted in more than 80 exorcisms while in the Italian capital, ranging from the sedate to the disturbingly violent, before returning to the US to perform his own rites. But most people seeking exorcism don’t receive the rite.
“Often they’ll begin the conversation with: ‘Father, I need an exorcism,’ and my answer is: ‘I don’t do them on demand.’ In five years I’ve probably met 100 people. I’ve performed 40 exorcisms on only about five of them.” Exorcists are trained to be the ultimate sceptics, always looking for logical explanations for the disturbing phenomena they witness.
“A lot of the time it is mental health,” says Father Thomas. “On my team I have a clinical psychologist, a psychiatrist and a physician – all of whom believe in the possibility of Satan’s existence but they’re not people who say there’s a demon under every rock or chair. “Then there are things that happen that we can’t explain. When people show signs of some kind of demoniacal manifestation such as foaming at the mouth or rolling of the eyes or taking on the appearance of a serpent sometimes, or speaking in a language that they have no competency in but all of a sudden do, those are the classical signs.”
But months of questioning, prayers and psychiatric examinations precede the decision to perform an exorcism. The rite involves prayer, gospel readings, a litany of the saints, a homily, a blessing and the command for the demon to leave his victim. The ritual can take up to two tense hours. “I say: ‘In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ I demand that you leave,’ and I will say that repeatedly in the midst of prayers of exorcism from the Solemn Rite that I pray over people,” says Father Thomas.
“The tools are very simple: holy water, stole, book of deliverance, a crucifix, the rite of exorcism and that’s it.” The demon invariably lashes out at the exorcist, either physically or emotionally. “The exorcist does get attacked,” says Father Thomas. “Most priests I know want nothing to do with it. Demons attack where the exorcist is weakest. I have never experienced a physical attack. Mine have been more spiritual, psychological, emotional. Sexual temptation, trying to jeopardise my celibacy, creating emotional disturbances in me, exacerbating the experiences of loneliness that appear in a priest’s life at times.
“I recently delivered a very powerful demon whose name was Shroud. I got attacked and so did the other priest who was with me. He had a numbness down his leg for weeks, some kind of nerve damage. In my case it was emotional. We had a hard time delivering this demon. He just wouldn’t come out.” Father Thomas defends himself by chanting protection prayers and prayers taking on authority in the name of Christ. But fighting the Devil can be a lengthy battle and often requires repeated rituals.
“Demons are deceivers,” he says. “But once you get them to divulge their name, they have lost.” People open themselves to possession by dabbling in the occult and paganism, he believes. “A demon has to be invited in. Refrain from being involved in things that would be considered New Age: rituals of the occult, things such as Wicca or tarot cards, ouija boards, superstitious practices, black magic, white magic, anything that would be idolatrous.
“I think as long as people have a relationship with God and stay close to God, they don’t have anything to fear.” Father Thomas wishes more priests would become exorcists. “The people who come to me, whether it’s something diabolical or whether it’s psychological, these are mostly people who are enduring great suffering,” he says.
“It’s not hocus-pocus. It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s a profoundly healing ministry.” And the need for exorcists is soaring. “There are too many people coming. I’m not surprised given the times we live in. There’s more demonic activity. There’s the absence of God in the lives of a lot of people.” His exorcism of Lisa was one of his most successful: three rites evicted the demon and Father Thomas says: “She was able to resume her normal life and could go back to church.” He believes that the film The Rite offers the most realistic, orthodox depiction of exorcism thus so far from Hollywood.
“There aren’t any levitating beds, spinning heads or pea-green soup,” he says. Yet he watched the movie spellbound. “It was very emotional for me,” he says. “I found some of those scenes riveting. I found some very profound. They’re very accurate. That’s what I’ve seen in real life.” Now Father Thomas must leave Hollywood behind and return to his parish, knowing that soon he will yet again stare into the face of pure evil, fighting the Devil for possession of another human soul.